Can new measurement methods help save rainforests? – After world

By gathering various pieces of information, a unified scoring system can be developed: much like a doctor checking a person’s weight, heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol, forest health can now be examined under a magnifying glass.

Different areas, different problems

Forest diseases are as diverse as human diseases. They all “are experiencing different stresses on different timescales,” said co-author Katia Fernandez, an Amazonian fire and drought expert at the University of Arkansas.

Conditions in the tropical rainforest vary from continent to continent. There are more forest fires in Africa than anywhere else. The Amazon rainforest is drying out faster than Asian forests. Forest productivity fell significantly throughout the Amazon, while productivity in Congo remained stable. It is even increasing in the tropical forests of China, due on the one hand to significant reforestation efforts and on the other hand to the recovery from previous deforestation.

In Asia, on the other hand, the damage caused by land use changes is currently greater than that caused by climate change. In central Africa, forests experience greater water loss and higher temperatures than in Asia.

The Congo is largely intact today. Here, too, the consequences of climate change are clear – many trees in Gabon, for example, produce less fruit, which means less food for some wildlife – but there has not been any significant die-off here. According to scientists, one reason could be that water scarcity has been a problem in Africa for so long and forests are increasingly being used for drought.

So far, “the situation in Congo seems okay because people there clean less intensively than elsewhere, and the increasing aridity in the atmosphere is not enough to damage the trees,” said Covey. Drought can make them grow faster due to fewer clouds and more sunlight on the plants.

Amazon is the most risky

Nobody in the team is surprised that the Amazon remains the most heavily polluted region according to the new measurement method. “Even compared to other global rainforest challenges, the Amazon is extremely vulnerable,” said Covey. “Deforestation and climate change have significant impacts on the functioning of entire ecosystems.”

The richness and biodiversity of the Amazon is unmatched with golden lions, tomato lions, colorful birds and giant bees. Ten percent of the world’s biodiversity lives here, alone more than two million species of insects. The trees and soil in the area store the equivalent of four or five years of human carbon emissions. Forests produce much of their own water, absorbing moisture from the Atlantic Ocean through the soil and vegetation and releasing it into the atmosphere through the leaves. A water molecule can cross a forest four to five times.

Deforestation has increased under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, hitting a 12-year high last year. Fast-growing, drought-tolerant trees repel species that thrive in moisture. The rains are getting heavier, causing flooding. Droughts last longer and occur more frequently – there have been three major droughts in the last 16 years. The fire exploded and mortality in the forest increased.

All of this led two researchers to conclude in 2017 that parts of the Amazon would see major changes in the moisture cycle unless deforestation and fossil fuel burning stopped. They can destroy millions of trees or turn forests into dry forests. Their guess: A tipping point could occur if only 20 percent of the Amazon were deforested. Roughly speaking, this has already happened today.

The authors – Thomas Lovejoy, professor at George Mason University and senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, and Carlos Nobre, senior researcher at the University of São Paulo – are co-authors of the new study.

Saatchi said deforestation must be stopped at all costs. But this alone is not enough to stop the negative development. Active reforestation is urgently needed. “We don’t yet know how the system will react and how quickly. However, it’s best not to wait until this development is fully complete. We need to restore this system.”

By combining all of these measurements, scientists were, for the first time, able to paint a clearer, albeit more disturbing, picture of the state of tropical forests. While the measurements largely confirmed what other scientists had expected, the new study “is more concerning because it makes more sense,” said Nate McDowell, a forest ranger and geologist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who was not part of the research team.

“The staff on this project, especially the lead author, are known to be very, very cautious,” McDowell said. “The results are disturbing: As the planet warms, some forest areas are approaching threshold-like behavior. The system is slowing down.”

However, it is not too late to change course. The Saatchi team hopes the new complex analysis will convince people of how severely ecosystem changes can affect us all. They also hope that the results of their research will be used to monitor further changes – and allocate resources to recovery.

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