The destruction of the Amazon Rainforest is a key factor in climate change – over the last 50 years, almost 20 per cent of the forest cover has been lost.
The Amazon – a vast region that spans across eight rapidly developing countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana – has seen mass deforestation over recent years.
These large losses of the forest could make climate change worse because the Amazon forest plays a huge role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
According to the charity WWF, which has extensively researched the area: “Given the enormous amount of carbon stored in the forests of the Amazon, there is tremendous potential to alter global climate if not properly stewarded.”
Now scientists from the University of Bristol have claimed the Amazon rainforest may be more resilient to the threat of deforestation than previously thought – and if it is given a break from human pressure, the longterm prognosis could be more positive than feared.
It is widely understood that a large part of the Amazon forest is susceptible to a ‘tipping point’, meaning damage like deforestation or drought could lead to a dramatic increase of fire occurrence, or tip an area of rainforest into ‘savannah’ (grassy plains, with few trees).
This savannah state is difficult to reverse – requiring lots of rainfall and a break from human pressure, giving the forests the time and resources for trees to regrow.
But according to these scientists, the good news is that as long as there is some forest left, deforestation may not lock currently forested areas into a savannah state.
So why does this new data contradict earlier reports?
He claims the way he analyzed the information had a huge impact on his conclusions, saying: “I decided to take a fresh look at the data and a very different picture emerged when I controlled for seasonality and took out all the data points from satellite images that represented locations that had been subjected to human influence.”
In other words, Wuyts used information from different academic fields, to create a new context to examine the data in.
Because he was puzzled by his analysis, he teamed up with two other researcher; Professor Alan Champneys, a theorist in the Department of Engineering Mathematics, and Dr Jo House, an expert on land use change from the School of Geographical Sciences.
For the past two years they have been examining these findings rigorously.
Alan Champneys, Professor of Applied Non-linear Mathematics, said: “When I first agreed to co-supervise Bert’s PhD, I was worried that I had no expertise in the mathematics required to study the observed effects in the satellite data.
“Little did I realise though that the key to understanding Bert’s observations was the same pattern formation theory I have used extensively before. To me this shows the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and also the ubiquity of mathematics and data science in explaining seemingly unrelated phenomena.”
In essence, the researchers believe their conclusion is so different to previous research, because the earlier studies left out theories that affect the way the data can be read.
The work does not end here: another theory has emerged suggesting that forest loss may lead to decreased rainfall causing further forest loss.
Whether climate change or deforestation may still permanently transform the Amazon forest into a savannah depends on the importance of this second mechanism – and is subject of further research.
Human intervention therefore remains a key part of the Amazon Rainforest’s ability to thrive – and to continue playing its role in slowing down global warming. Should deforestation at the hands of humans continue, despite these fndings, the forest will remain vulnerable.
Experts believe we still have a lot to learn about this richly biodiverse area. WWF says: “As our knowledge of the Amazon constantly increases, so does our understanding of the major ecological services rainforests offer to the local and global community.
“While many equate a patch of rainforest with quick rewards – some simply to put food on the table – others see it as a repository of biodiversity, useful chemical compounds or even carbon stocks for the world’s increasing carbon dioxide emissions.”