By the end of the third year the trees had released more than two-thirds of the carbon dioxide they had stored during the whole of their lives, accelerating climate change. This study shows that Amazonia cannot withstand more than two consecutive years of drought without breaking down.
This immense forest contains 90 billion tons of carbon, enough to increase
the rate of global warming by 50 per cent.
In 2006 the Amazon appears to be entering its second successive year of drought, raising the possibility that if the drought continues it could start dying next year. Mega-fires are expected to rapidly sweep across the drying jungle. With the trees gone, the soil will bake in the sun and the rainforest could turn into desert. This would spread drought into the northern hemisphere, including Britain, and could massively accelerate global warming with incalculable consequences. Spinning out of control this process could end in the world becoming uninhabitable – for the Amazon is the earth’s largest CO2 sink.
Dr Deborah Clark from the University of Missouri, one of the world’s top forest ecologists, says that “the lock has broken” on the Amazon ecosystem. She adds: the Amazon is “headed in a terrible direction”.
In the current drought the Amazon rainforest has begun releasing more carbon than it is absorbing. As in Europe after the 2003 heat wave that killed 35,000 people, the woodlands are being damaged. This causes them to release more carbon dioxide than they sequester – exactly the opposite of the assumptions built into most climate computer models, which treat forests as sponges that sop up excess carbon.
After carbon emissions caused by humans, deforestation is the second principle cause of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Deforestation is responsible for 25% of all carbon emissions entering the atmosphere, by the burning and cutting of about 34 million acres of trees each year, equivalent to the area of Italy.
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