Drought,the Detrimental Cigarette of the Amazon Rainforest

Author:  Jun Beom

A land that covers nine countries including Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela in South America. An area twenty five times bigger than the United Kingdom. A home to the largest number of living species in the world. The greatest oxygen tank of the earth. A treasure box that some believe may provide solutions to various diseases. The Amazon is an essential part of the earth and plays a vital role in keeping the earth alive and vibrant. Therefore, even the regional changes in the Amazon rainforest can cause international consequences. As increased levels of carbon dioxide gives way to climate changes and subsequent problems, more and more attention is being paid to such significant natural features of the earth as the Amazon rainforest. After long-term research, several scientists are worried that the Amazon rainforest, currently the greatest carbon dioxide absorbent, may turn into the biggest carbon dioxide producer in coming years as a result of climate changes.

The most recent predicament that occurred in the Amazon forest was the severe drought in 2005 caused by the temperature increase in the tropical North Atlantic sea surface. It was known as the worst drought in the past 100 years, damaging certain regions of the forest beyond repair. Many plants and other organisms died, decreasing the total biomass carbon (a means of measuring the total amount of living organisms), by about 1.2 to 1.6 petagrams (University of Leeds). Rivers dried up, disabling the usage of the boats which act as a major mode of transportation in the rainforest. On the ground of the once full river, countless fish, which are major protein sources for the regional people, lay dead.

However, people were uncertain of the quantitative impacts of the drought in 2005, especially from the perspective of change in carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere. Some people claimed that the dry conditions cause the Amazon rainforest to be greener because increase in solar radiation during drier periods enhances the activities of organisms in the forest. From this they would deduce that although a number of plants were dead due to the drought in some areas, there was not much change in the overall carbon dioxide absorption rate of the Amazon forest. Others said that the consequences were severe, but were unsure of the degree of the detriment to the rain forest.

On March 6th 2009, Dr. Oliver L. Phillips from the University of Leeds (UK) and 65 other scientists from RAINFOR (an international organization that studies the Amazon rainforests) published a report in Science stating that they have finally completed the quantitative analysis of the impact of the drought in 2005 on the Amazon rainforest after 30 years of arduous work in monitoring the tropical forest.

"Visually, most of the forest appeared little affected, but our records prove tree death rates accelerated," said Professor Phillips. "Because the region is so vast, even small ecological effects can scale-up to a large impact on the planet's carbon cycle."

Also, Peruvian botanist and one of the co-authors of the report, Abel Monteagudo, stated that "Some species, including some important palm trees, were especially vulnerable, showing that drought threatens biodiversity too."

The research showed that, in normal years, the rainforest absorbs about two billion tons of carbon dioxide. However, in 2005, the year of the deadly drought, the Amazon produced three billion tons of carbon dioxide. This adds up to a net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the Amazon rainforest totaling five billion tons, which is more than the amount of carbon dioxide produced annually by Japan and Europe combined (Phillips). The findings are extremely shocking because it had been believed that the Amazon functions as a sort of air filter for the earth, providing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. Now, we know that the Amazon could actually be the major pollutant of the earth in this circumstance.

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The biggest fear is that the drought may not be a one-time incident. The worst case scenario is this is perhaps the start of a vicious cycle. As the climate change progresses, the Amazon could suffer another serious drought, possibly even a worse one that would again increase the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This would hasten the process of climate change and possibly give way to another detrimental drought on the Amazon, and this cycle would continue on and on.

Professor Phillips expressed his concern over this issue. "For years the Amazon forest has been helping to slow down climate change," Phillips said. "But relying on this subsidy from nature is extremely dangerous. Deeper cuts in emissions will be required to stabilize our climate."

With this knowledge of how seriously the last drought affected the Amazon, people should now be aware of how important the Amazon rainforest is to our world and how important it is to protect it accordingly. The Amazon needs long-term care and protection to keep it intact and to benefit the world. The negative effects caused by the 2005 drought could have been to a much lesser degree had the Amazon been preserved better. However, there are numerous obstacles to adequately preserving the Amazon rainforest. In order to gain economic profits, lumberjacks are cutting down large areas of the forest to produce logs to sell them globally. Some people are burning down parts of the forest in order to use them as farms. In fact, Brazil, the country in control of the largest portion of the Amazon rainforest, has turned such an immense area of the rainforest into a soybean farm that Brazil has become one of the world's largest soybeans producing country (Clay).

Nonetheless, the global community should not merely force countries covered by the Amazon to not utilize the Amazon rainforest, as there would be a significant economic stagger for countries that house a portion of the Amazon if they were not allowed to industrialize it. The countries that have a portion of the Amazon in their region may not have many other options to develop themselves other than to make use of the Amazon. Before it's too late, the world needs a wise strategy that will satisfy both the countries that share a part of the Amazon and the entire world that benefits from its contributions to our earth.