The Amazon has been called the lungs of the Earth. It is the greatest carbon sink we have and it's preservation is deemed critical in the effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. That is why the news from NASA this week of evidence of large scale degradation of the Amazon rainforest due to extreme drought is being taken so seriously.
PASADENA, Calif. - An area of the Amazon rainforest twice the size of California continues to suffer from the effects of a megadrought that began in 2005, finds a new NASA-led study. These results, together with observed recurrences of droughts every few years and associated damage to the forests in southern and western Amazonia in the past decade, suggest these rainforests may be showing the first signs of potential large-scale degradation due to climate change.
Dry Amazon 2005 Manaquiri, Amazonas State, Amazon, BRAZIL
Severe drought impacts the Brazilian Amazon. Thousands of fish die at the dry river bed of Manaquiri Lake, 150 kilometers from Amazonas State Capitol Manaus. The lake is now reduced to a narrow stream.
The scientists found that during the summer of 2005, more than 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers, or 70 million hectares) of pristine, old-growth forest in southwestern Amazonia experienced an extensive, severe drought. This megadrought caused widespread changes to the forest canopy that were detectable by satellite. The changes suggest dieback of branches and tree falls, especially among the older, larger, more vulnerable canopy trees that blanket the forest.
While rainfall levels gradually recovered in subsequent years, the damage to the forest canopy persisted all the way to the next major drought, which began in 2010. About half the forest affected by the 2005 drought - an area the size of California - did not recover by the time QuikScat stopped gathering global data in November 2009 and before the start of a more extensive drought in 2010.
NASA image reveals extent of 2010 Drought in Amazon
The researchers attribute the 2005 Amazonian drought to the long-term warming of tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures. "In effect, the same climate phenomenon that helped form hurricanes Katrina and Rita along U.S. southern coasts in 2005 also likely caused the severe drought in southwest Amazonia," Saatchi said. "An extreme climate event caused the drought, which subsequently damaged the Amazonian trees."
The drought rate in Amazonia during the past decade is unprecedented over the past century. In addition to the two major droughts in 2005 and 2010, the area has experienced several localized mini-droughts in recent years. Observations from ground stations show that rainfall over the southern Amazon rainforest declined by almost 3.2 percent per year in the period from 1970 to 1998. Climate analyses for the period from 1995 to 2005 show a steady decline in water availability for plants in the region. Together, these data suggest a decade of moderate water stress led up to the 2005 drought, helping trigger the large-scale forest damage seen following the 2005 drought.