Despite the surge in fires, international attention has waned in 2020, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the degradation of the Amazon rainforest has profound consequences from climate change to global health.
Global climate implications
The Amazon rainforest covers approximately eight million square kilometres — an area larger than Australia — and is home to an astounding amount of biodiversity.
Yet these lands are under siege. As of 2019, an estimated 17 per cent of the Amazon’s forest cover has been clear-cut or burned since the 1970s, when regular measurements began and the Amazon was closer to intact.
As the rainforest bleeds biomass through deforestation, it loses its ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere and releases carbon through combustion. If the annual fires burning the Amazon are not curtailed, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks will progressively devolve into a carbon faucet, releasing more carbon dioxide than it sequesters.
While the global impacts are dire, the local impacts of these fires are also significant. Persistent poor air quality, which extends far into Brazil and other regions of South America, including in metropolitan centres like São Paulo, can lead to health problems.
As roads are built and forests are cleared for timber production and agriculture, a checkerboard of tropical forest edges is created. These destructive activities can lead to rapid extinctions and a severe loss of species richness anywhere that human encroachment occurs.
Many researchers predict that deforestation is propelling the Amazon towards a tipping point, beyond which it will gradually transform into a semi-arid savanna. If the deforestation of the rainforest continues past a threshold of 20-25 per cent total deforestation, multiple positive feedback loops will spark the desertification of the Amazon Basin.