The Amazon is turning into savannah – we have 5 years to save it

We have been hearing warnings about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for decades, but experts say a catastrophic tipping point is now just over the horizon. Are they right? And if so, what can we do to pull things back?

Environment 8 December 2021

The San Rafael waterfall, the biggest falls in Ecuador, located on the boundary of the Amazon with The Andes. San Rafael, Napo, Ecuador. February 2016

The Ecuadorian Amazon

Tropical Herping

IT IS perhaps the most iconic symbol of life on our planet. The Amazon is the world’s largest and most biodiverse tropical rainforest, and an immense trap for carbon dioxide. The perils of deforestation in this vital resource are old news. But now, the time on the clock is running out. It seems that the world’s biggest rainforest is about to turn into the world’s biggest environmental disaster. “We are about to collapse,” says Luciana Gatti at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. “We are in an emergency, we need action now.”

Gatti has spent years observing the Amazon from the air. She believes we are as little as five years from a point of no return, where lush rainforest irreversibly begins to convert into dry savannah. It is also the point at which billions of tonnes of carbon would be dumped into the atmosphere. “It’s a nightmare,” she says.

That nightmare scenario is the infamous Amazon tipping point, where the ecosystem can no longer cope with the damage being inflicted and irreversibly flips into a new stable state. Like a game of Jenga, brick after stabilising brick is removed until the tower collapses in a heap.

Warnings that this is approaching have now taken on extreme urgency. The rate of deforestation has increased sharply and is fast approaching the theoretical limit. In September, the Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) – a group of more than 200 experts including Gatti – released an assessment of the state of play. The verdict: we are on the edge of disaster. …

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