SOURCE: National Geographic

DATE: November 19, 2018

SNIP: When Jair Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old retired Brazilian military officer, takes the helm in January of a country that manages 1.5 million square miles of the Amazon, the risks to wildlife and indigenous tribal communities will be clear. If Bolsonaro follows through on his campaign promises, deforestation rates in Brazil could almost immediately triple, according to an assessment by scientists.

He wants to carve more mines and pave new roads. He wants fewer penalties for cutting down trees, and he has promised to halt growth of a network of indigenous forest reserves. By merging the nation’s agriculture and environment ministries, he hopes to make it easier for Brazil’s powerful soy and cattle industries to transform more native jungle into pasture and farms.

But the consequences of Bolsonaro’s policies also would be felt far beyond areas hit by chainsaws. Even modest increases in deforestation could affect water supplies in Brazilian cities and in neighboring countries while harming the very farms he is trying to expand. More massive deforestation might alter water supplies as far away as Africa or California.

Most troubling of all: Some scientists suggest the Amazon may already be nearing a tipping point. The region has been so degraded that even a small uptick in deforestation could send the forest hurtling toward a transition to something resembling a woodland savanna, according to an analysis earlier this year by two top scientists. In addition to forever destroying huge sections of the world’s largest rainforest, that shift would release tremendous quantities of planet-warming greenhouse gases, which could hasten the decline of whatever forest remained.

The loss of just a fraction more of this moisture-creating forest could lead far more of it to dry out, which would reduce rainfall even more, in a self-reinforcing spiral. Already, climate change, decades of logging, and land-clearing by intentionally set wildfires have sparked record-setting droughts in 2005, 2010, and 2015-2016.

Lovejoy and Nobre recently tried to estimate how close to the edge the Amazon really is. Their projection, published earlier this year as an editorial in Science Advances, suggests that in the most susceptible parts of the rainforest—the southern, eastern and central Amazon—loss of as little as 20 to 25 percent of original forestland could tip the system into an unstoppable transition to a drier, savanna-like ecosystem.

Already, by the Brazilian government’s own estimates, 17 percent of the Amazon forest system has been lost—not including the parts that are still largely intact, but degraded.

[It’s well worth reading the whole article.]