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Without strict legislation, the Amazon will turn into a savanna

The fires in the Amazon forest that the world sees with amazement since a few weeks ago, threaten the lives of hundreds of animal and plant species, as well as close to 54 million people that live in the region in Brazil, Perú, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname, and 316 indigenous groups.

These fires are the result of a combination of the dry season –normal for this time of the year– with the unstoppable and indiscriminate felling of the tropical rainforest to expand the agricultural and cattle farming frontier. For instance, soy (which is exported to China and Europa) has turned into one of the main factors of deforestation, as it has been estimated that due to soy, close to 70,000 km2 of the jungle have been destroyed since 2017.

Added to the phenomenon is the building of infrastructure –especially dams and roads– and legal and illegal mining. A 2018 research project carried out by the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network showed 2,312 locations where illegal gold, diamond, coltan mining is taking place and distributed in the following manner: 1,899 in Venezuela, 321 in Brazil, 68 in Ecuador, and 24 in Perú.

Read more: Agribusinesses, mining and wood extraction: other threats to the Brazilian Amazon (in Spanish)

Among the many environmental services provided by the Amazon are the regulation of hydrological extremes (which diminish the severity and intensity of the droughts and river flash floods); controlling erosion; the protection against global warming due to carbon sequestration and evapotranspiration; hosting biodiversity and the storage and recycling of nutrients. However, the consequence of deforestation of the Amazon could turn it into a savanna, and the consequences for the planet would be very grave.

Irreversible damage

Deforestation of tropical rainforest causes great damage to multiple essential processes for the balance of the climate regionally and globally, and for the water cycle, where water changes its state and can occur in a matter of seconds or millions of years.

Between 35% and 50% of the rain that falls over the hydrological basins of rivers of these areas is evapotranspired by the forest. As a consequence, droughts in periods of low rainfall or floods during times of high rainfall are exacerbated.

Furthermore, they have spotted that the accelerated destruction of the Amazon would be reducing the pressure exerted by the atmospheric moisture biotic pump, a theory proposed in 2006 by Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov, of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, which says that forests play a determining part in rains by producing atmospheric winds that work as pumping mechanisms, extending the moisture of the continents.

In regards to the energy and carbon balance in rivers and other tributaries of the region, indiscriminate tree felling impacts radiative (incident and reflected shortwave, incident and emitted longwave irradiance) and non-radiative (sensible heat and latent heat) flows and changes solar radiance reflection when it hits the Earth (albedo). Additionally, cloud formation and convective processes (a form of heat transferal) are the most important tropical rain-producing mechanisms.

Read more: Disturbing levels of mercury pollution in the Amazon (in Spanish)

The destruction of forests also affects the formation of cloud condensation nuclei or CCNs, necessary for transforming water droplets of water coming from water vapor condensation into raindrops. Vegetation and trees produce organic volatile compounds that convert into CCNs, meaning that tropical rainforests produce water (via evapotranspiration) and CCNs that later feed them through rain; this is a highly sophisticated plant biochemical element.

Deforestation could provoke a drastic collapse turning the tropical rainforest into a savanna, with grave consequences for the planet

The feedback between the Andes and the Amazon

A significant part of the rain and water condensed in the Andes mountains comes from water vapor carried by the trade winds from the Amazon and surrounding seas. Particularly, there is high transportation of moisture from the Amazon, that crosses the Andes and reaches the Colombian Pacific Coast; it is a coupled system.

An increasingly concerning situation is related to the fact that recycled rains in the Andes are about 70% and 80 % and feed the rivers that drain the lowlands of the Amazon providing liquid water, sediments, and essential nutrients to maintain the extraordinary biodiversity. However, as a consequence of deforestation, rainfall, and water vapor are decreasing and there is a greater risk of droughts, tree mortality, and forest fires.

Video: How is carbon stored in the Amazon forest? (In Spanish)

Disturbances to the water cycle also threaten the provision of this invaluable resource that feeds the Andean glaciers, at high risk of disappearing due to global warming. Likewise, it impacts the environmental stability of Andean tundras, mountain jungles, mountain plateaus, and Andean forests  (fog, montane, and rainforest) and hence the supply of water to cities such as Bogotá, Lima, Quito, or La Paz, inclusively of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay because the wind circulation systems over the continent –such as the “South American low level jet” and aerial rivers– carry great amounts of water vapor from the Amazon to the Río de La Plata and the southeast of South America. For all the previous reasons, forest fires are impacting the quality of air of all the continent.

Stopping deforestation and restoring ecosystems of the region implies carrying out scientific research programs to try to understand, model, and predict the hydrological, climatic, and biochemical dynamics of the Andes-Amazon system and the interrelationships between ecosystems and populations.

The international community, so concerned about the integrity of the Amazon and convinced of its values, as one of the critical points of the stability of the climatic system of the planet, need to invest financial, technological, and human resources agreed with the Amazonian countries and be correlative with the planetary importance of the region, beyond speeches and good intentions.


* Member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Member of the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences (ACCEFYN, for its Spanish acronym) and part of the 2019 International Mission of Experts.

Consejo Editorial