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Amazon rainforest ‘could become a desert’
And that could speed up global warming with ‘incalculable consequences’, says alarming new research
The Independent (U.K.), July 23, 2006
The vast Amazon rainforest is on the
brink of being turned into desert, with catastrophic consequences for
the world’s climate, alarming research suggests. And the process, which
would be irreversible, could begin as early as next year.
Studies by the blue-chip Woods Hole
Research Centre, carried out in Amazonia, have concluded that the
forest cannot withstand more than two consecutive years of drought
without breaking down.
Scientists say that this would spread
drought into the northern hemisphere, including Britain, and could
massively accelerate global warming with incalculable consequences,
spinning out of control, a process that might end in the world becoming
The alarming news comes in the midst
of a heatwave gripping Britain and much of Europe and the United
States. Temperatures in the south of England reached a July record of
36.3C on Tuesday. And it comes hard on the heels of a warning by an
international group of experts, led by the Eastern Orthodox " pope"
Bartholomew, last week that the forest is rapidly approaching a "
tipping point" that would lead to its total destruction.
The research carried out by the
Massachusetts-based Woods Hole centre in Santarem on the Amazon river
has taken even the scientists conducting it by surprise. When Dr Dan
Nepstead started the experiment in 2002 by covering a chunk of
rainforest the size of a football pitch with plastic panels to see how
it would cope without rain he surrounded it with sophisticated
sensors, expecting to record only minor changes.
The trees managed the first year of
drought without difficulty. In the second year, they sunk their roots
deeper to find moisture, but survived. But in year three, they started
dying. Beginning with the tallest the trees started to come crashing
down, exposing the forest floor to the drying sun.
By the end of the year the trees had
released more than two-thirds of the carbon dioxide they have stored
during their lives, helping to act as a break on global warming.
Instead they began accelerating the climate change.
As we report today on pages 28 and 29,
the Amazon now appears to be entering its second successive year of
drought, raising the possibility that it could start dying next year.
The immense forest contains 90 billion tons of carbon, enough in itself
to increase the rate of global warming by 50 per cent.
Dr Nepstead expects "mega-fires"
rapidly to sweep across the drying jungle. With the trees gone, the
soil will bake in the sun and the rainforest could become desert.
Dr Deborah Clark from the University
of Missouri, one of the world’s top forest ecologists, says the
research shows that "the lock has broken" on the Amazon ecosystem. She
adds: the Amazon is "headed in a terrible direction".
Fred Pearce is the author of ‘The Last Generation’ (Eden Project Books), published earlier this year