The Amazon rainforest, often referred to as the “lungs of the Earth,” is facing a crisis that could have far-reaching consequences for the global climate system. A new study published in Nature by an international team of researchers, including scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), warns that up to 47% of the Amazonian forest is under threat. The study identifies key climatic and land-use thresholds that must not be crossed to ensure the resilience of the Amazon.

According to PIK scientist Boris Sakschewski, the Southeastern Amazon has already transitioned from a carbon sink to a carbon source, indicating that human pressure on the region is too high for it to maintain its status as a rainforest in the long run. This shift not only impacts the local ecosystem but also has implications for the broader climate system. As rainforests play a crucial role in maintaining moisture levels in the air, losing forest cover in one area can trigger a domino effect that leads to further deforestation in other parts of the continent.

The study highlights five critical drivers that are pushing the Amazon towards a tipping point: global warming, annual rainfall amounts, rainfall seasonality, dry season length, and deforestation rates. For instance, the researchers found that mean annual rainfall below 1000 mm per year is unsustainable for the Amazon rainforest. Below 1800 mm per year, the risk of abrupt transitions from rainforest to savanna-like vegetation increases, especially in the face of more frequent and severe droughts and forest fires.

The repercussions of Amazon deforestation extend beyond the borders of the rainforest. The Amazon’s “flying rivers” play a vital role in the South American Monsoon, influencing rainfall patterns across the continent. Additionally, the Amazon stores a significant amount of carbon, equivalent to 15-20 years of current human CO2 emissions. Therefore, forest loss in the Amazon not only contributes to global warming but also intensifies its effects.

The study examines examples of disturbed forests in different parts of the Amazon to understand how ecosystems respond to environmental stressors. In some cases, forests may recover but remain in a degraded state dominated by opportunistic plants like lianas and bamboos. In other scenarios, the forest may not recover at all and become trapped in an open-canopy, flammable state. The spread of such flammable ecosystems is concerning as they can increase the likelihood of wildfires spreading to adjacent forested areas.

To safeguard the Amazon rainforest and prevent it from reaching a tipping point, a combination of local and global efforts is needed. Ending deforestation and forest degradation, expanding restoration efforts, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are crucial steps to protect the Amazon’s fragile ecosystem. As co-author Niklas Boers emphasizes, urgent action is required to preserve the Amazon within safe boundaries and mitigate the impacts of climate change on this vital biome.

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