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July 25, 2006

Oh. My. God. Environment

Pretty clearly the worst news yet. Words fail me. The Independent:

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 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.

[T]he 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". [Emphasis added]

I don't know words strong enough to say how significant this is. If you're not scared yet, you should be.

Posted by Jonathan at July 25, 2006 01:50 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


"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."

Once one of these positive feedback cycles gets start, it is almost impossible to stop. It seems that the current climate models have inadequately dealt with the effects of positive feedback. The scientists seem to always be "surprised" these days.

Has anyone else in the midwest noticed a substantial increase in the insect population this year or is just my imagination? Global climate change is going to significantly affect insect populations and habitats leading to new disease vectors and increased crop damage. Dengue fever in Iowa?

Posted by: Iowan at July 25, 2006 03:24 PM

I agree completely about the importance of feedback loops and with your observation that we seem to be reading about one "surprise" after another. (For a number of other examples, use the "Search this site" widget on the home page and search for "feedback".) It's all happening so much more suddenly and rapidly than anyone anticipated.

If the Amazon were to go, that clearly would be the mother of all feedback loops, totally off the charts, potentially initiating a hellish, self-reinforcing feedback spiral that, as the article says, becomes "a process that might end in the world becoming uninhabitable." Not uncomfortably warm. Uninhabitable.

Stephen Hawking was ridiculed for saying he worries that the Earth "might end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade and raining sulfuric acid." (http://www.livescience.com/environment/ap_060622_hawking_climate.html) The collapse of the Amazon rainforest, however, is the sort of thing that nobody's factored into their models, and it's the sort of thing that could well send the global climate system spiraling out of control, propelled by self-reinforcing feedback loops.

The terrifying thing about the research cited in the Amazon rainforest article is that the collapse could take just a few years. I knew we were skating on thin ice, but I never dreamed it was this thin.

Posted by: Jonathan at July 25, 2006 04:23 PM


So you have Dengue fever in Iowa? In Wisconsin and other parts of the U.S. there’s Lyme disease. This year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on deer ticks and Lyme disease in separate articles. Wisconsin's deer tick population is increasing and spreading, inhabiting new parts of the state. Also, the percentage of deer ticks carrying the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease has more than doubled from 10 to 21 percent. Milder Wisconsin winters are sighted as the reason for deer ticks thrive-a-bility. Given Iowa borders Wisconsin, it's probably not your imagination that you're seeing more insects.

Sightings of ticks exceed the norm

Lyme disease: time bomb ticking

For those who'd like some perspective, the Amazon rainforest represents half the rainforests in the world. It encompasses 1.2 billion acres, or 1.875 million square miles. That's 3.25% of the planets land mass. That’s a huge chunk of land. So if this report is accurate, it’s far from being insignificant.

Welcome to Easter Island, the sequel, home of massive drought, raging forest fires, melting ice sheets, rising temperatures, dwindling biodiversity and swarms of infectious insects. This is happening so fast the world's leading experts are dragging their jaws on the floor in shock. But the bickering-with-bombs in the Middle East will continue, and you and I are simply going to get up tomorrow and go to work, aren't we? It’s almost surreal.

Posted by: Jeff at July 25, 2006 06:48 PM

I had this simplistic solution to global warming sometime back. If temperatures rise to an unbearable level, can we turn our clocks upside down - live & work in the night and sleep during the day. A perpetual night-shift. I'm not a scientist so someone has to highlight whether this is probable.

Sometimes, I just wish something dramatic will happen that will forse the leadrship into action.

Posted by: Thanneer at July 25, 2006 09:55 PM

We have to stop the clear cutting of the Amazon now!

We took the first step and managed to get McDonald's to agree to stop selling chicken fed on soya grown in newly deforested areas of the Amazon rainforest.

Can we now get KFC to do the same?

Soy production is one of the biggest threats to the Amazon..........

Posted by: Seagull76 [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 03:47 AM

And it is not like humanity has the excess energy to put into moving water to the amazon so it doesn't dry out.

Posted by: eric blair at July 26, 2006 09:44 AM

"Sometimes, I just wish something dramatic will happen that will force the leadership into action."

Some scientists have made comments along these lines; however I don't think any of them imagined the entire Amazon rainforest disappearing so quickly.

The problem with waiting for one major event like this is such an event could likely be THE tipping point at which time nature would be spiraling downward all by herself. Then, anything man does or doesn't do would be grossly overshadowed by nature, having no effect whatsoever.

Can the Amazon rainforest, 1.2 billion acres, go up in smoke in less than 2 or 3 years?

Can the entire Greenland ice sheet slide off into the ocean in a month? A week? A day?

Can human activities destroy, not just alter, the atmosphere?

The last 300 years has been the first time in the history of our planet that any animal has mechanically altered our biosphere. That’s significant, and nature wasn’t designed for it.

Given the surprise displayed by scientists at how fast things are happening, waiting any longer to make dramatic changes in our lifestyles is foolish. We're almost at a point where we will no longer have to intellectualize global warming. Everyone will be able to open their eyes and look around to see what effect human activity is having on our planet (some of us can do that now). The only solution will be to obey nature's design - alter our lifestyles so they are compatible, and completely in line with nature - because we won’t have a choice. Nature makes the rules like it or not, and nature will always have the last say.

Unless of course you believe the disappearance of the entire Amazon rainforest is simply part of a natural life cycle.

Posted by: Jeff at July 26, 2006 11:28 AM