Amazon rainforest on verge of collapse


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

07/24/2006 10:19 PM Independent Online Edition > Environment
24 July 2006 22:18

Amazon rainforest 'could become a desert'

And that could speed up global warming with 'incalculable consequences', says 
alarming new research

By Geoffrey Lean in Manaus and Fred Pearce
Published: 23 July 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 uninhabitable.

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 

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 

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

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

Escaping the Matrix website
cyberjournal website  
subscribe cyberjournal list     mailto:•••@••.•••
Posting archives      
  cyberjournal forum  
  Achieving real democracy
  for readers of ETM  
  Community Empowerment
  Blogger made easy