Will the Amazon become the next Dust Bowl?

With the recent devastating wildfires in the states, and now the fires raging in the Amazon, my kids have been watching closely and wondering what is going on!?

The two eldest love watching nature doc’s on the crazy biodiversity found there, witnessing drop-in-the-bucket examples of its life at the Dallas World Aquarium, and the extensive poison dart frogs exhibit at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium on our trips to Salt Lake City. (Heck, we even watched Rio I and II on our road trips out west to see family this summer – multiple times.)

They know the value of a forest just from our hikes at the nature center. The difference in comfort between summertime on the prairie and under the woodland canopy is notable, not to mention the abundance of Texas life to be found.

So they were on the verge of tears when they saw the footage of the fires on the news over the past weeks. How do I explain what is happening? I had better pay attention to the news, if not for my sake, for theirs.

Tonight’s extensive PBS NewsHour report was an eye-opener regarding Brazilian politics and rate of deforestation going on in the Amazon, its scientific relation to increasing drought, and those rebound effects which may stress remaining forest into an eventual die-out.

The researchers and ecologists predict that with this rate of destruction the Amazon will be the next savanna or even dust bowl.

Divino Silvério explains how critical environmental protection is to agricultural success in the region, and his sense of loss with the deforestation:
“It’s where I grew up, where my family lives. To me, this region is part of me. It’s also special because of its extraordinary diversity, which has always been part of my life. So there’s an intense feeling of loss when you see the changes that are happening.”

According to the report (which is part of a series of investigative reports called “Brazil on the Brink“), Brazil has become the world’s leading producer and exporter of chicken, beef and soybeans which means agribusiness is competing with the amount of forest remaining. And with the newly elected president, Jair Bolsenaro, being a proclaimed climate denier – his political leadership has meant relaxed regulations which have in turn led to further deforestation. It’s almost as if he wants the forest to burn uncontrolled.

Since President Bolsonaro took office in January, roughly 1,000 square miles of forest has been lost, a nearly 40 percent increase from last year.

– Amna Nawaz, PBS News Hour

In Nawaz’s interview with Woods Hole researcher Chris Coe, a scientist in Mato Grosso, Brazil, his 20 years of research have shown that there is a definite cooling by the forest going on, notably a 10 degree difference between the clear cut soybean fields and forest, and let’s not forget its sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere.

Coe further explains how each year gets increasingly hotter and drier. He discusses how the trees take up and hold the majority of the water, returning it to the atmosphere to in turn bring it back as rain to the region, whereas the soybean crops leave the majority of the water in the soil to only have it flushed back into the ocean via streams.

The dry season is something like five months’ long. So, already, by the end of dry season, they’re running out of water. They’re using what’s left in the soil. And they’re running out.
And so you push another two weeks, that’s a lot more stress on the forest. Same issue. The forest that remains is just under more stress. More of it dies.

-Mike Coe as interviewed by Amna Nawaz

The “Dust Bowl” analogy comes from Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist who has been studying the rainforest since the 1960’s. According to Nawaz’s interview with Lovejoy, he believes that a tipping point could happen if more than 20 to 25 percent of the Amazon is destroyed.

We’re seeing, I think, the first flickering of the tipping point, with historic droughts in 2005, 2010, and 2016…

[President Bolsonaro] will go down in history as being the equivalent of the person who created the Dust Bowl in the United States. The difference is between the Dust Bowl and situation is in the Amazon and in Brazil is, we actually scientifically understand what’s going on and can avoid those tipping points.

-Thomas Lovejoy as interviewed by Amna Nawaz

Will our children see the next “Dust Bowl”? And will it be the tragic end of one of the most richly biodiverse regions of our planet? At least I can explain the process to my children, instead of shrugging it away. I have to offer them something.

And further, what does this say about the loss of our prairies and those plants with far reaching roots, root systems that may even create their own aquifer systems?

So much research on the benefits of our native flora and their root systems could be done as evidenced by this publication from the Annals of Botany, Understanding deep roots and their functions in ecosystems: an advocacy for more unconventional research. (Annals of Botany, Volume 118, Issue 4, October 2016, Pages 621–635, https://doi.org/10.1093/aob/mcw130)

As we urbanize and suburbanize our landscape with the rare consultation of any individual in regards to preserving biodiversity and natural resources… within our infrastructure planning and development…

Where does this lead us in our own immediate communities?

Banner photo by thiago japyassu from Pexels.

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