Amazon basin approaches potential disastrous tipping point

Landmark report released at COP26 climate change conference forebodes a potential crisis for the Amazon basin.

A first-of-its-kind scientific report detailing the natural disaster unfolding in the Amazon basin was presented at the COP26 conference in Glasgow. The Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) released an Amazon Assessment Report that was developed by over 200 scientists. It is the most in-depth and comprehensive scientific assessment yet made on the state of the Amazon Basin. The report warns that the Amazon is quickly approaching a potential catastrophic tipping point due to deforestation, degradation, wildfires, and climate change. Crossing such a tipping point could result in a permanent loss of rainforest and a disastrous shift to dry and degraded ecosystems.

Associate professor at the UvA’s Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, Carina Hoorn, is the leading author of the report’s first chapter-Geology and geodiversity of the Amazon: Three billion years of history. She is also co-author of its second chapter, Evolution of Amazonian biodiversity.

“The Amazon is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet,” explained Hoorn. “If we allow the forest to be destroyed now, it will be gone forever.”

The biodiversity of the Amazon basin

The Amazon basin, otherwise known as the lungs of the Earth, is the world’s largest rainforest and river system, vital to the planet’s climate stability and home to an irreplaceable abundance of biodiversity. It provides critical ecosystem services to the eight sovereign countries and one overseas territory that encompass it.

The Amazon Basin is one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas. More than 10% of all known animal and plant species can be found here. The true species diversity of the Amazon is still currently underestimated, with a new species being found every other day. The basin also produces the largest river discharge on Earth, accounting for about 16% to 22% of the world’s total river input to the oceans. It is a crucial carbon storage and sink, holding approximately 150 to 200 billion tons of carbon in its soils and vegetation.

However, humans are having an increasingly dramatic effect on the Amazon. Approximately 17% of Amazonian forests have already been converted to other land uses, and at least an additional 17% have been degraded. Experts estimate 366,300 km2 of forests were degraded between 1995 and 2017. Every year, hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests burn across the basin as fires escape nearby pastures or recently deforested areas.

Sustainable development pathways

The Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) report urges decision-makers to act urgently and recommends an immediate deforestation moratorium in areas that are already nearing crisis points. It also demands for zero deforestation and degradation to be reached in the entire Amazon region before 2030. The report identifies various sustainable development pathways and underscores the importance of offering science-based, data-driven recommendations. It also encourages technological innovation, and nature-based solutions using knowledge from indigenous peoples and local communities to guide future policy-making.

“The Amazon has a long history, with rainforests emerging over 60 million years ago” added Hoorn. “This sensitive ecosystem managed to adapt slowly to climate and landscape changes. This is how geology works – slowly. But the ecosystem might not survive the unprecedented rates of change by human action. We need to raise awareness of the risks of losing the forest. And we need to further investigate the consequences of deforestation.”

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