The Amazon is burning and the ice caps are melting. Climate change is seemingly very apparent to most, whilst others continue to deny it is real. What is the truth behind the harrowing images of the burning Amazon which have surfaced over the last week or so? And, why is the Amazon so important?
I thought it important to address this topic as it has become a huge, continuing news story since a week or so ago, dominating headlines. My worry, as always with news reporting, is the tendency to over-exaggerate the truth and manipulate the facts. Let’s start with why is the Amazon important. The Amazon rainforest is not only used by locals and their nearby communities, but the entire world. It is the last rainforest of its size and huge diversity, left on the planet. This diversity is reasonably untouched and has much left to be discovered. Many scientists believe there could be numerous medical discoveries to be made from the Amazon. The rainforest helps to control the weather and climate of the area, exchanging water and energy in the atmosphere, and most importantly, it acts as a great source for oxygen creation. As we learn at school, plants undertake photosynthesis; using carbon dioxide in the air for energy, and the waste product is oxygen, which we rely on to breathe.
It is often said that the Amazon is the “lungs of the Earth“, and quoted to produce 20% of all oxygen on Earth. As well as using CO2 during photosynthesis, the rainforest stores some of this heat-trapping gas which is linked to global warming, preventing it from heating the planet too quickly. All reasons to keep it healthy, right? It is a beautiful area filled with trees (for the time being) but, it’s definitely not the Earth’s lungs. Plants use up oxygen in the conversion of soil nutrients to energy. Even flat savannas produce oxygen and do so sufficiently. It is the biodiversity of the Amazon that needs to be saved not purely for our oxygen needs. In fact, the Amazon only produces 6% of all oxygen created by plants! Strangely, if we burnt every living thing that was able to produce oxygen tomorrow, we’d actually be OK; there would be a surplus of oxygen, but we may find it more difficult to find food. So if its not from plants, where does most of our oxygen come from?
Instead of living things, we have the dead to thank for the surplus of oxygen in our atmosphere. Atmospheric oxygen has accumulated over a VERY long time. If we assume 99.9% of oxygen created through photosynthesis is used by living things during respiration, then what happens to the last 0.01%? Every living thing is made of carbon. When photosynthesising organisms die, the carbon in them is unused; no longer used for CO2 and thus, there is a tiny surplus O2 left in the atmosphere. Over (a very long) time, this builds up in the atmosphere and has created the habitable world we live in today.
If there is enough oxygen no matter what, why should we be concerned about the Amazon burning? The majority of Amazon fires are started by farmers clearing land for livestock or crops (mainly soy, which is used to feed most things). These livestock and crops are a Global export, everyone benefits from them, so it is unrealistic to expect farmers to cease their work. However, there have been more fires in 2019 than in 2018, but still far fewer than in the early 2000’s. The worry is that these are slowly creeping up again. Dr Dan Napstad, a scientist and expert on the Amazon rainforest has said: “Once burned, forests become more vulnerable to further burning. And as deforestation and repeated fire reduce forest cover, rainfall is inhibited.” When forests have normal rainfall, they act as fire breakers; the ground leaves are damp so when farmers clear their land, the fires are dampened by the moist ground. However, as land is deforested and drought occurs, fires become more widespread and harder to stop. Dr Napstad writes in his blog, that we don’t know enough about the fires from satellite images alone to lay blame on farmers or deforestation or the government singularly.
Even when writing this blog post I came across too many contradictory articles, and I hope to have relayed some key facts to you without hysteria. Dr Napstad makes numerous recommendations including: (1) ensuring Brazil is mapping the fires annually and to compare these with deforestation monitoring, (2) in the short-term, have better fire management such as early warnings and improved fire brigades, and (3) better public education on fire management. This is not isolated to the Amazon. Californian wildfires should also be investigated and monitored more closely. However, with such a tremendous biodiversity, the Amazon deserves to be preserved, and better education and management may help to achieve that. Here are the WWF’s 5 things you can do to help: LINK. Just be wary of media headlines: Di Caprio posted online about his outrage using an image that was 20 years old. The sentiment is correct, just ensure the facts are too.