Brazil’s Amazon now emits more carbon than it absorbs, unprecedented study reveals

Liz KimbroughMongaBayCreative Commons

  • According to a study published today in Nature, the Brazilian Amazon is emitting more carbon than it captures.
  • This study is the first to use direct atmospheric measurements, across a wide geographic region, collected over nearly a decade that accounts for background concentrations of atmospheric gases.
  • Eastern Amazonia is emitting more carbon than Western Amazonia, and Southern Amazonia is a net carbon source. Southeastern Amazonia, in particular, switched from being a carbon sink to a carbon source during the study period. The reason: emissions from fires.
  • These results have important implications for policy initiatives such as REDD+ that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions. Because different regions of the Amazon differ in their ability to absorb carbon, schemes which use one value for the carbon-capturing ability of the whole Amazon need to be re-examined, scientists say.

(MongaBay) – The Amazon has long done its part to balance the global carbon budget, but new evidence suggests the climate scales are tipping in the world’s largest rainforest.  Now, according to a study published today in Nature, the Amazon is emitting more carbon than it captures.

“The Amazon is a carbon source. No doubt,” Luciana Gatti, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and lead author of the study told Mongabay. “By now we can say that the budget for the Amazon is 0.3 billion tons of carbon per year [released] into the atmosphere. It’s a horrible message.”

Southeastern Amazonia, in particular, switched from being a carbon sink to a carbon source during the study period. Emissions were high in 2010 because of a dry El Nino year, Gatti says, and she expected to see emissions return to normal afterward, but this never happened. The reason: emissions from fires.

Brazils Amazon now produces more carbon than it absorbs unprecedented study reveals 2
Fires burning in the Amazon on August 17,2020 next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, in Labrea, Amazonas state. Felled forests are intentionally lit in the Amazon to clear land for cattle ranching. Photo by Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

In the Amazon, forests are often cut during the wet season and burned during the dry season to make way for agribusiness, particularly cattle pasture. According to the study, fire emissions in the Southeastern Amazon are three times larger than the net biome exchange (NBE): a measure of the forest’s carbon uptake plus all emissions from decomposition and human sources such as burning fossil fuels.

Without emissions from fires, Gatti says, the Amazon would be a carbon sink. “In other words, the Amazon is a source because of biomass burning.”

Using a small aircraft, Gatti and colleges measured carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other gasses above four locations across the Brazilian Amazon. Between 2010 and 2018, they collected air samples seasonally from near the treetops up to 4.5 kilometers (2 miles) above sea level, creating nearly 600 vertical profiles of emissions.

Their conclusion: Eastern Amazonia is emitting more carbon than Western Amazonia, and Southern Amazonia is a net carbon source.

Brazils Amazon now produces more carbon than it absorbs unprecedented study reveals 3
Map showing four locations (two in the northwest were counted as one) in which Gatti et al samples atmospheric gasses. The bar charts show net biome exchange (NBE), “the average annual balance of CO2 absorbed by forests for photosynthesis compared with the amount of CO2 produced by the decay of organic matter”; the average carbon emissions produced by fires; and ‘total’ is the sum of NBE and fire emissions. Figure from Denning 2021 based on data from Gatti et al 2021. Copyright Nature.

Other studies have noted a decline in the carbon uptake of forests based on on-the-ground measurements. But this study is the first to use direct atmospheric measurements, across a wide geographic region, collected over nearly a decade, while accounting for background concentrations of atmospheric gases.

Gatti et al were able to establish seasonal and regional differences in carbon balance and attribute them to drought, fire, deforestation and forest degradation,” Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study (but wrote about it for Nature News & Views) told Mongabay in an email.

Deforestation rates have been higher under Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, than any past president and they show no sign of halting.  In 2020, Brazil lost 158 hectares (390 acres) of forest per hour — an area half the size of New York City’s Central Park — according to a report by MapBiomas, a network of NGOs, universities and tech firms that include Google

In May of this year, forest clearing in the Brazilian Amazon increased 67%  over May 2020, according to INPE’s satellite-based deforestation tracking system, DETER. This puts deforestation in 2021 on pace with last year’s rate. 

“If you’re thinking a tipping point [for] the Amazon [is when] it becomes a carbon source, this region is at a tipping point,” Gatti said. “My question is, if we stop now with fires and deforestation and start the very important repair process for forests, could we reverse the picture? I don’t know.”

Brazils Amazon now produces more carbon than it absorbs unprecedented study reveals 4
Aerial view of the Brazilian Amazon [or deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon] taken from the small aircraft used to measure carbon emissions. Photo courtesy of Luciana Gatti.
Decades of deforestation and fires in the Amazon coupled with the global climate crisis have caused the dry season to get longer and made mega-droughts more common, contributing to a feedback loop that degrades forests. These degraded conditions mean trees are dying at a faster rate. As more plants and trees die, the Amazon’s ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere is declining.“The Amazon is like a bubble… if the trees are intact, it keeps moisture under the canopy in the forest,” Ernesto Alvarado, a professor of wildland fire sciences at the University of Washington told Mongabay last year. Deforestation, roads and fires can puncture this moisture bubble. “You open the canopy, right? It’s like a bunch of holes in the bubble, and now the moisture is better escaping and the forest becomes drier.”

Brazils Amazon now produces more carbon than it absorbs unprecedented study reveals 5
Luciana Gatti and colleagues used this small aircraft to measure carbon and atmospheric gasses above four locations over the Amazon. Photo courtesy of Luciana Gatti.

The results of the Nature study have important implications for policy initiatives such as REDD+ that rely on forests to offset carbon emissions. The Amazon is not homogenous; different regions have different types of soil, humidity and tree species. We see now, they also differ in their capacity to absorb or emit carbon.

For example, the Eastern Amazon, mainly in the states of Pará and Mato Grosso, is 30% deforested and emits 10 times more carbon than other regions. So, schemes that use one value for the carbon-capturing ability of the whole Amazon, Gatti says, need to be re-examined.

“Forests might not be able to sequester enough carbon to provide a net benefit for climate mitigation,” Ruth DeFries, a professor of sustainable development at Columbia University who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay in a 2020 interview. “[This] suggests that efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases depend on alternatives to fossil fuel burning — the largest and well-quantified source of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.”

“Worldwide, plants have been growing faster than they’re dying for decades, providing a priceless emissions reduction…Now we’re seeing the limits of that process,” Denning said. “It means society will have to work harder to eliminate fossil fuels from the world economy since we won’t be able to rely on tropical forests to clean up after ourselves.”

Citations:

Gatti, L.V., Basso, L.S., Miller, J.B. et al. Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change. Nature 595, 388–393 (2021). Doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03629-6

Denning, S. Southeast Amazonia is no longer a carbon sink. Nature 595, 354-355 (2021). Doi: 10.1038/d41586-021-01871-6

Banner image of fire next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, in Lábrea, Amazonas state. Taken August 17 2020. CREDIT: © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_

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Liz KimbroughMongaBayCreative Commons

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