News Release

How deforestation is triggering an irreversible transition in amazon forests?

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Many scientists believe that the Amazon, encompassing the world's largest tropical rainforest, may soon reach a tipping point where it starts to dry up and can no longer sustain rainforest.

Some even predict that rainforest will ultimately be transformed into savanna-like ecosystems. However, until now, inception of such an irreversible transition has not been supported by observations.

A new study led by scientists from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed how deforestation is triggering an irreversible transition in Amazon hydrological system. The transition is recognized as a key process that can prompt a tipping point to a treeless Amazon.

This study was published in Environmental Research Letters.

According to this study, deforestation causes substantial reduction in evapotranspiration, leading to drier lower atmosphere up to the middle troposphere, although moisture supplies from tropical Atlantic have been enhanced due to the warming ocean surface. 

Over the past 20 years, desiccation — the removal of moisture — in the lower troposphere has been persistent during the dry season and emerging in the wet season. "This occurs because deforestation induces warming-enhanced buoyant updrafts, elevates hot and dry air and thereby reduces downward mixing of water supplies from the tropical Atlantic," said Dr. XU Xiyan, the first author of this study. They find the atmospheric drying is particularly severe in the southeastern Amazon where deforestation is extensive.

"The severe atmospheric desiccation cannot be compensated by enhanced water supplies from the Atlantic Ocean, demonstrating an emerging transition in Amazon hydrological cycle," said Dr. JIA Gensuo, the corresponding author of the study.

That being said, scientists also have some encouraging findings. According to the study, the drying over the north part of Amazon rainforest has just occurred, suggesting a window of opportunity for preventing ecosystem collapse with forest conservation. "Large scale forest conservation and ecological restoration are still promising and offer opportunities for reversing the drying trend and preventing ecosystem collapse," said Dr. JIA. 

Forest conservation and restoration have been practiced at large scale in Brazil and other Amazonian countries in past decades, which is considered to positively mitigate climate change and maintain hydrological and ecosystem services.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.