One-Fifth Of Amazon Rainforest Found To Emit More Carbon Than It Absorbs Due To Deforestation

Three parrots sitting on a tree branch.
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In a recent study carried out by a team of scientists led by Professor Luciana Gatti, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the Amazon basin appeared to show that around 20 percent of its total area had become a net source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to the BBC.

The decade-long study involved measuring greenhouse gases every two weeks by flying airplanes over various parts of the forest that were equipped with carbon sensors. The results showed that, particularly in the southeastern part of the forest, around 20 percent of the area had become a carbon source.

The researchers believe that one of the reasons why the rainforest is emitting large quantities of carbon into the atmosphere is because of deforestation. While the Amazon normally functions as a carbon net, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, when trees die, they emit carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

The vastness of the forest allows it to act as a carbon sink, pulling the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and thus slowing down the rate of global warming. However, as millions of trees have been lost to fires and logging over the past several years, the researchers believe that the Amazon is losing its ability to absorb more carbon than it emits.

A man on a motorbike looks at a truck as it transports illegally harvested Amazon rainforest logs on a road near protected indigenous land on June 10, 2012 near the Arariboia Indigenous Reserve, Maranhao state, Brazil
  Mario Tama / Getty Images

One part of the forest in particular has appeared to have lost the ability to pull in carbon from the atmosphere — a heavily deforested patch in the southeast.

Gatti commented on the results of the study, telling Newsweek that the problem is only worsening over time.

“Each year is worse. We observed that this area in the southeast is an important source of carbon. And it doesn’t matter whether it is a wet year or a dry year. 2017-18 was a wet year, but it didn’t make any difference.”

Co-author of the study Carlos Nobre also spoke out about the findings, calling them “very worrying” as they “could be showing the beginnings of a major tipping point.” He believes that within the next 30 years, more than half the Amazon rainforest could be transformed into savanna, losing its carbon-absorbing trees altogether in these areas.

The Amazon tipping point is when the forest loses its ability to absorb more carbon than it emits and scientists have warned of it for decades.

“[The Amazon] used to be, in the 1980s and 90s, a very strong carbon sink, perhaps extracting two billion tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere. Today, that strength is reduced perhaps to 1-1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year,” Nobre explained.

In the meantime, it doesn’t appear that deforestation will be cut back anytime soon. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has made it clear that the government’s intentions for the rainforest will be development over conservation.