The Royal Statistical Society’s “International Statistic of the Decade” seeks to highlight an especially pressing concern over the past decade. This year’s “winner” is this alarming fact: in just 10 years or so an area the size of 38,600 square kilometers (24,000 square miles) has been deforested in the Amazon.
That is large enough to host 8.4 million European football fields. The figure is based on data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which monitors the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. Although it is an approximation, the figure indicates the extent of the problem in the Amazon, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.
“This statistic, while giving only a snapshot of the issue, provides insight into the dramatic change to this landscape over the last 10 years,” observes Liberty Vittert, a professor of data science at Washington University in St. Louis in the United States. “Since 2010, mile upon mile of rainforest has been replaced with a wide range of commercial developments, including cattle ranching, logging and the palm oil industry.”
The process of turning rainforests into agricultural land has been going on for ages, yet in recent years it has picked up speed again. Last summer fires, most of them set deliberately, destroyed vast swathes of forest in Brazil endangering local ecosystems last summer. The forests of the Amazon, which are home to nearly a third of the world’s fauna and flora, cover some 5.5 million square kilometers, accounting for nearly 60% of Brazil’s land area.
The country’s government insists that it has the right to exploit the Amazon region for logging, mining and agriculture in the interest of boosting Brazil’s economic prospects. Yet environmentalists have warned that as a result of wanton deforestation and ongoing climate change the Amazon forests are reaching a tipping point beyond which they could begin to undergo irreversible changes.
“Although 2019 was not the worst year for fire or deforestation in the Amazon, it was the year when the extent of fires and deforestation in the region garnered full global attention,” note the authors of a study in Science Advances. Further deforestation, they warn, is bound to “lead to staggering losses of biodiversity, carbon, and, in turn, human well-being.”
Land still forested across much of the Amazon region could soon turn into savannahs, especially in the eastern and southern Amazon, “perhaps extending into central and southwestern areas, because these zones are naturally close to the minimum amount of rainfall required for the rain forest to thrive,” the authors say.
In addition to the catastrophic loss in biodiversity, a collapse of the Amazon’s forests would also deprive the planet of an invaluable carbon sink. Local rainforests are estimated to store more than 180 billion tons of carbon, much of which would be released back into the atmosphere if the forests are burned or cut down.
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