MSU Researchers discuss recent uptick in Amazon Deforestation and Fires

Recent wildfires in Brazil have sparked global concern about the Amazon Rainforest.

Tapajós National Forest in Pará state in the Brazil Amazon, an example of a moist tropical evergreen forest that covers much of the Amazon basin. The Tapajós forest is located about 20 miles south from the savanna sites in Alter do Chão. Photo taken by Marielle N. Smith from the top of a 60 m
Tapajós National Forest in Pará state in the Brazil Amazon, an example of a moist tropical evergreen forest that covers much of the Amazon basin. The Tapajós forest is located about 20 miles south from the savanna sites in Alter do Chão. Photo taken by Marielle N. Smith from the top of a 60 m "eddy flux" tower that measures exchanges of carbon dioxide between the forest and the atmosphere.

More than 38,000 fires were recorded in the Brazilian Amazon biome during the 2019 early dry season, from June to August, when the international crisis exploded. 

Historical data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research show similar or higher numbers for these same months were common from 2002 to 2008 and were last registered during the 2010 El Niño drought. Unlike 2010, the 2019 increase cannot be explained solely by the rainfall regime. Rather, it seems that this year's fires are linked to increased deforestation--around 10,000 km2--making it the highest rate since 20081,2

Researchers speculate that a possible cause of the increase in fires is land being illegally burned and converted for agricultural use. Though at present a complicated legal and economic story, land conversion is broadly connected to international demands for low-price products like beef and soy. 

The tremendous number of fires have devastating effects on a local and global scale. MSU researchers Scott Stark, Ph.D., Marielle Smith, Ph.D., have been studying the rainforest ecosystem in Brazil, each for about a decade or more.  

Aspects of their research have been affected by the fires, and they are left with great concern and heavy hearts about the loss of rainforest and likely climate destabilization of South America. Besides rapid deforestation, loss of ecological diversity and carbon storage, there is a related humanitarian crisis associated with violence and illegal land conversion in territories of indigenous peoples, communities historically founded by enslaved people (quilombos) and riverine settler communities. 

Darlisson Bentes dos Santos uses a portable lidar instrument to collect information on forest vertical structure at the Tapajós National Forest as part of a project led by Smith. Stark and Aragón are also making lidar measurements at the savanna sites near Alter do Chão. [Photo taken by Marielle N. Smith]
Darlisson Bentes dos Santos uses a portable lidar instrument to collect information on forest vertical structure at the Tapajós National Forest as part of a project led by Smith. Stark and Aragón are also making lidar measurements at the savanna sites near Alter do Chão. [Photo taken by Marielle N. Smith]

Dr. Stark’s research team has been studying areas surrounding Santarém and the small town of Alter do Chão, located in the eastern part of the Brazilian Amazon, collaborating with Dr. Susan Aragón of the landscape ecology lab at the Federal University of Western Pará (UFOPA). The long-term forest monitoring plots were initially set up by the National Institute of Amazonian Research and are now continued by UFOPA. 

The Santarém area provides a valuable study site as an isolated piece of savanna contained within the lowland rainforest that covers much of the Amazon basin. Stark and Aragón believe the savanna may have remained in this area after an earlier climate period because of the sandier soils and thousands of years of human fire management (given that Santarem is the cradle of one of the Amazonian largest civilizations: the Tapajos), in contrast to rainforest, which does not naturally burn.

Stark’s team was studying the transitional area between rainforest and savanna when they heard the news that a major wildfire was headed toward their research sites.

Stark said he was already concerned about the area. It didn’t have protection, and development was increasing nearby, putting his research plots at risk. “The closed canopy forest, stunted because of dry air conditions surrounding the local airport, was in bad shape already,” Stark said. Other forest areas had been negatively impacted by strong wildfires during a major drought in 2015 and 2016.

Stark ultimately received news from Aragón that the majority of their shared study areas had burned. Site visits are needed to properly assess the degree of damage. Even though 2019 was not a bad drought year, when fires are often worse, the extent of this fire was greater than any that had impacted the sites in their prior experience.

Marielle Smith stands on a canopy walkway, which hangs almost 30 m above the forest floor in the Tapajós National Forest. The walkway provides researchers with easy access to study upper canopy leaves, as well as breath-taking views over the forest. [Photo taken by Marielle N. Smith]
Marielle Smith stands on a canopy walkway, which hangs almost 30 m above the forest floor in the Tapajós National Forest. The walkway provides researchers with easy access to study upper canopy leaves, as well as breath-taking views over the forest. [Photo taken by Marielle N. Smith]

Stark said he will have to do an analysis on the burned land. 

“It really hurts,” Stark said. “The only upside might be that I’m seriously considering [seeking] money for more detailed monitoring of the early phases of reforestation.” 

While the current situation is alarming, it does provide an opportunity to study how forest ecosystems regenerate after fire.

Stark’s research team has growing concerns about the state of the Amazon rainforest. Research suggests that the forest is reaching a critical stage. Because the Amazon actually creates its own climate, once the tipping point is reached, the region may no longer be able to support a rainforest as we know it. 

“It can no longer be the same forest, so then it can’t have the same rainfall regime. Then, actually, it’s not just the rainforest that suffers, it’s also the agricultural fields adjacent,” Smith said. 

The more distant agricultural ‘breadbasket’ region of southern Brazil receives rainfall from spillover of the Amazon’s wet season and is also threatened by deforestation.

Scientists are not sure what the future forest will look like. Some theorize it may be more like a savanna. It will likely not store as much carbon, be as ecologically diverse or have the same rainfall. For these reasons, and because of the importance of the climate in the Amazon for the rest of the world, MSU’s research on savannas and changing tropical forests is critical for efforts to find healthy forest solutions to global change problems.

Savanna site near Alter do Chão. [Photo taken by Susan Aragón]
Savanna site near Alter do Chão. [Photo taken by Susan Aragón]

The fires and politically tumultuous situation have left the MSU research team concerned for the future of forests in Brazil, as well as for the future of the Brazilian forest research community. The researchers said that their jobs could become harder. Science in the Amazon is a community effort led by Brazilians alongside international researchers like the MSU team, and the Brazilian community has been heavily hit by recent funding cuts.

 “We’re all hoping that the tide will turn, but it’s practical to know that there will be dark days for a long time. I’ve been steeling myself as much as I can, given my abilities as a scientist, which means I am limited, but I can do something,” Stark said. 

Fire and land conversion rates have declined since August, apparently connected to national and international pressure for conservation. 

The team will continue to work on evidence-based solutions to provide a means to conserve the Amazon forest alongside urban and agricultural regions as a great water and climate resource.

 

(1) INPE. "The estimated clearcut deforestation rate for the Legal Amazon in 2019 is 9,762 km²" 18 November 2019. http://www.inpe.br/noticias/noticia.php?Cod_Noticia=5294
(2) Barlow, J., Berenguer, E., Carmenta, R. and França, F., 15 November 2019. Clarifying Amazonia's burning crisis. Global Change Biology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.14872

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