Flames are spreading across the Amazon rainforest this summer, spewing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each day. But scientists say that’s not their biggest concern. They’re far more worried about what the fires represent: a dramatic increase in illegal deforestation that could deprive the world of a critical buffer against climate change.
More than a soccer field’s worth of Amazon forest is falling every minute, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, known as INPE. Preliminary estimates from satellite data revealed that deforestation in June rose almost 90 percent compared with the same month last year, and by 280 percent in July.
The Amazon is a key component of Earth’s climate system. It holds about a quarter as much carbon as the entire atmosphere and single-handedly absorbs about 5 percent of all the CO2 we emit each year.
But if such rapid deforestation continues, it will foil efforts to keep global temperatures in check. Scientists fear parts of the Amazon could pass a critical threshold and transform from a lush rainforest into a dry, woody grassland. And that could bring catastrophic consequences not only for people in South America, but also for everyone around the world.
“We might be very, very close to the tipping point,” said Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. And if we cross it, he said, “it’s irreversible.”
The trend is particularly alarming because it comes after more than a decade of progress toward preserving the world’s largest rainforest. Many blame the anti-environmental rhetoric of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new far-right president, and fear that it will put global climate efforts in jeopardy.
Left to nature, the Amazon rarely burns. But INPE has counted more than 25,000 blazes in the Amazon in August alone. The smoke grew so thick it cast the city of Sao Paulo, which lies more than 1,000 miles away, into daytime darkness.
The fires have sparked an international outcry. But they came as no surprise to those who keep a close watch on the Amazon. Satellite images in May, June and July showed an uptick in deforestation. It was only a matter of time before the flames followed, said Doug Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“This is the expected one-two punch,” he said.
Instead of axes and machetes, people now use bulldozers and giant tractors with chains to pull down the Amazon’s towering trees. A few months later, they torch the trunks. It’s the only realistic way to remove such huge amounts of biomass, Morton said. “It’s slash and burn, 21st century.”
Thousands of acres at a time are being cleared for large-scale agriculture, he added. The land is primarily used as pasture for cattle – one of Brazil’s major exports – or for crops such as soybeans.
This marks a troubling reversal in the fight to end deforestation, long a linchpin of global climate policy.
In 2004, the Brazilian government began cracking down on forest destruction by designating more protected areas and reserves for indigenous people. Violators were fined or arrested and forest loss declined 75 percemt by 2012.
What’s more, the country’s agricultural production continued to increase, demonstrating that development and conservation could go hand in hand, said Nobre, who has been studying the Amazon for more than 35 years.
“It was a big success,” he said. “Everybody was happy.”
However, deforestation rates have increased sharply since May, a few months after Bolsonaro took office. So far, more than 2,000 square miles of forest have fallen this year.
Bolsonaro has railed against protections for indigenous land and promised to boost the country’s economy. He has also weakened the government’s capacity for oversight and indicated he would not go after farmers, loggers and miners who seize and clear forest.
Some say his words have been enough to trigger a burst of deforestation. (Government representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)
“This actually gives a signal to people on the ground that they can do whatever they want and they won’t be punished,” said Ane Alencar, director of science at the nonprofit Amazon Environmental Research Institute.
President Donald Trump’s trade war may also play a role by making Brazil a leading supplier of China’s soybeans. “This is, to some extent, driven by global demand for commodities, because that’s what potentially gives the land value to farmers and ranchers,” said ecologist Oliver Phillips of the University of Leeds in the U.K.
Bolsonaro has called INPE’s deforestation figures a “lie” and recently fired the agency’s director. He has also claimed, without evidence, that environmental groups started the fires to embarrass his administration.
But scientists said there’s no question that the blazes are linked to deforestation. The burns are clustered near roads along the so-called arc of deforestation, and they line up with the areas of greatest land clearing earlier in the year, Morton said. The power of the fires also betrays their origins.
“Big towering columns of smoke need a big fire beneath them,” he said. This is not farmers burning fields or clearing overgrown pastures. “This is burning enormous piles of wood.”
As bad as they are, this year’s fires are not off the charts. Between January and August, scientists have counted more than 40,000 blazes in the Amazon region; in 2010, during a severe drought, they spotted 60,000 blazes over the same period of time.
The weather this year is pretty normal, so that’s not what’s driving the fires, said Luiz Aragao, a scientist at INPE. Instead, the pattern resembles the years of the early 2000s, when deforestation peaked. Back then, scientists tallied nearly 80,000 fires between January and August, and the burns closely tracked the area of cleared forest.
“This is eerily familiar,” Morton said.
And it’s not over yet. It’s common to let felled trees dry before burning them, so the spike of deforestation that INPE recorded in July will bring more fires in September, Alencar said: “We still have two months to go.”