* Amazon turning to desert *


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

A disaster to take everyone's breath away

Monday July 24, 2006
By Geoffrey Lean

MANAUS - Deep in the heart of the world's greatest rainforest, a nine-day 
journey by boat from the sea, Otavio Luz Castello is anxiously watching the soft
waters of the Amazon drain away.

Every day they recede further, like water running slowly out of an immense 
bathtub, threatening a worldwide catastrophe.

Standing on an island in a quiet channel of the giant river, he points out what 
is happening. A month ago, the island was under water. Now, it juts 5m above it.

It is a sign that severe drought is returning to the Amazon for a second 
successive year. And that would be ominous. New research suggests that one 
further dry year beyond that could tip the whole vast forest into a cycle of 

The day before, top scientists delivered much the same message at a remarkable 
floating symposium on the Rio Negro, on the strange black waters beside which 
Manaus, the capital city of the Amazon, stands.

They told the meeting - convened on a flotilla of boats by Ecumenical Patriarch 
Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church, dubbed the "green Pope" for his 
environmental activism - that global warming and deforestation were pushing the 
entire enormous area towards a "tipping point", where it would start to die.

The consequences would be awesome. The wet Amazon Basin would turn to dry 
savannah at best, desert at worst. This would cause much of the world to become 
hotter and drier.

In the long term, it could send global warming out of control, eventually making
the world uninhabitable.

Nowhere could seem further from the world's problems than the idyllic spot where
Otavio Luz Castello lives. The young naturalist's home is a chain of floating 
thatched cottages making up a research station in the Mamiraua Reserve, halfway 
between Manaus and Brazil's border with Colombia.

Rare pink river dolphin play in the tranquil waters around the cottages, 
kingfishers dive into them, giant, bright butterflies zig-zag across them and 
squirrel monkeys romp in the trees on their banks.

There is little to suggest that it may be witnessing the first scenes of an 
apocalypse. The rivers of the Amazon Basin usually routinely fall 9m to 12m - 
greater than most of the tides of the world's seas - between the wet and dry 
seasons. But last year they just went on falling in the worst drought in 
recorded history.

At one point in the western Brazilian state of Acre, the world's biggest river 
shrank so far that it was possible to walk across it.

Millions of fish died, and thousands of communities whose only transport was by 
water were stranded.

And the drying forest caught fire; in September, satellite camera images showed 
73,000 blazes in the basin.

This year, says Otavio Luz Castello, the water is draining away even faster than
last year - and there are still more than three months of the dry season to go.

It is much the same all over Amazonia. In the Jau National Park, 18 hours by 
boat up the Rio Negro from Manaus, local people who took me out by canoe at dawn
found it impossible to get to places they had reached without trouble just the 
evening before.

Acre received no rain for 40 days recently, and sandbanks are beginning to 
surface in its rivers.

Flying over the forest - with trees in a thousand shades of green stretching, 
for hour after hour, as far as the eye can see - it seems inconceivable that 
anything could endanger its verdant immensity.

Until recently, scientists took the same view, seeing it as one of the world's 
most stable environments.

Though they condemned the way that, on average, an area roughly the size of 
Wales is cut down each year, this did not seem to endanger the forest as a 
whole, much less the planet.

Now they are changing their minds in the face of increasing evidence that 
deforestation is pushing the Amazon and the world to the brink of disaster.

Dr Antonio Nobre, of Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research, told the
floating symposium of unpublished research which suggests that the felling was 
drying up the entire forest and helping to cause the hurricanes that have been 
battering the United States and the Caribbean.

The hot, wet Amazon, he explained, normally evaporates vast amounts of water, 
which rise high into the air as if in an invisible chimney, drawing in wet 
northeast trade winds, which have picked up moisture from the Atlantic.

This, in turn, controls the temperature of the ocean - as the trade winds pick 
up the moisture, the warm water left gets saltier and sinks.

Deforestation disrupts the cycle by weakening the Amazonian evaporation which 
drives the whole process.

One result is that the hot water in the Atlantic stays on the surface and fuels 
the hurricanes.

Another is that less moisture arrives on the trade winds, intensifying the 
forest drought.

Marina Silva, a fiery former rubber-tapper who is now Brazil's Environment 
Minister, described how the Government was finally cracking down on the felling 
by seizing illegally cut logs, closing illicit enterprises and fining and 
imprisoning offenders.

As a result, she says, it dropped by 31 per cent last year.

But that takes it only back to the levels it was in 2001, still double what it 
was 10 years before. And it has reached far into the forest after the American 
multinational Cargill built a huge port for soya three years ago at Santarem.

This encouraged entrepreneurs to cut down trees to grow soya.

The symposium flew to inspect the damage this had caused - vast fields of beans 
destined to feed supermarket chickens in Europe, where until recently there was 
lush forest.

Brazilian politicians say their country has so many other pressing problems that
the destruction is unlikely to be brought under control, unless the world helps.

Calculations by Hylton Philipson, a British merchant banker and rainforest 
campaigner, reckon that doing this would take US$60 billion ($80 billion) a year
- less than a third of the cost of the Iraq war.

About a fifth of the Amazonian rainforest has been razed completely. Another 22 
per cent has been harmed by logging, allowing the sun to penetrate to the forest
floor, drying it out.

Add these two figures together and the total is perilously close to 50 per cent,
predicted as the "tipping point" that marks the death of the Amazon.

Nobody knows when that crucial threshold will be passed, but growing numbers of 
scientists believe that it is coming ever closer.

One of Nobre's colleagues, Dr Philip Fearnside, says: "With every tree that 
falls, we increase the probability that the tipping point will arrive."

The science behind the scare

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 and 
could massively accelerate global warming with incalculable consequences.

The research - carried out by the Massachusetts-based 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.

The Amazon now appears to be entering its second successive year of drought, 
raising the possibility 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.

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 

Deborah Clark from the University of Missouri, one of the world's top forest 
ecologists, says research shows "the lock has broken" on the Amazon ecosystem 
and the Amazon is "headed in a terrible direction".


Copyright © 2006, APN Holdings NZ Ltd

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