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forests > newsfile > 'one year to save the amazon'

'One year to save the Amazon'

Posted: 27 Jul 2006

The Amazon rainforest is at risk of turning into desert in the near future, with catastrophic consequences for the world's climate, according to research reported in The Independent newspaper this week. The process, which would be irreversible, could begin as early as next year.

The award winning author and environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean in Manaus and leading science writer Fred Pearce were reporting on studies in Amazonia carried out by the Woods Hole Research Centre. These 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 - a process that might end in the world becoming uninhabitable.

The research - carried out by the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole centre in Santarem on the Amazon river - involved covering a patch of rainforest the size of a foorball pitch with plastic panels to see how the trees cope without rainfall.

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 two journalists say the Amazon now appears to be entering its second successive year of drought, raising the possibility that it could start dying next year. If this happens the forest could release 90 billion tons of carbon, 'enough in itself to increase the rate of global warming by 50 per cent'.

They say that Dr Dan Nepstead, who started the experiment in 2002, expects "mega-fires" 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, said the research shows that "the lock has broken" on the Amazon ecosystem. The Amazon, she said, is "headed in a terrible

The full text of this report can be found at http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article1191932

A second fuller report on drought and destruction in the Amazon was also carried by The Independent on the same day (July 23, 2006). It can be accessed by clicking on http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article1191880.ece

Fred Pearce is the author of 'The Last Generation' (Eden Project Books),published earlier this year.

© People & the Planet 2000 - 2006
Rubber tapper in Jurua Extractive Reserve, Amazon, Brazil. Photo: Greenpeace/Felipe Goifman
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