Brazil’s Great Amazon Rainforest Burns as Parched Megacities Fall Under Existential Threat

One need only look at today’s satellite image of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest to notice something’s terribly wrong. A vast 1,000 mile swath of what should be some of the wettest lands on the globe running south of the world’s largest river is covered by a dense pall of smoke. Scores of plumes boil up out of the burning and sweltering forest. Pumping dark clouds into the sky, the fires’ tell-tale streaks out over a drought-parched Brazil, across the Atlantic, and over to Africa where the plume is again thickened by yet more wildfires.

Amazon Rainforest burns

(Massive wildfires belch smoke over a vast section of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest. These fires are occurring as much of the country suffers from drought. In the north, the current drought is the worst in at least 50 years. In the southeast, drought is now said to be the worst in at least 85 years. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

The greatest rainforest in the world, sometimes called Earth’s lungs, is burning, blackening, and belching out a thick pulse of carbon dioxide into an atmosphere that is already greatly over-burdened with industry-emitted greenhouse gasses. The world’s largest watershed and remaining largest rainforest combined now finds itself in a crisis of human making. A set of insults that may not now be reversible as the forest begins to succumb to both drought and fire.

It’s a crisis that threatens to turn South Brazil into a desert, to turn one of the world’s vast carbon stores into a carbon emissions source, and to eventually convert the great rainforest itself into dry grasslands. Such a transition would result in yet one more major contributor to increasing global greenhouse gas concentrations even as it puts Brazil’s mega-cities under threat of collapse. And it’s a transition that’s happening now. A violent transformation that likely started during the early 2000s. One now reaching catastrophic new intensities.

Human-Forced Warming, Slash and Burn Agriculture, Godzilla El Nino

The causes for the fires are three-fold and all too often missed in the sparse mainstream media reports of the ongoing catastrophe. First, human-caused warming of the globe is pushing the great rainforest to slowly heat up and dry out. Alone, such warming would be enough to take down the great rainforest if the Earth warmed by between 2 and 4 degrees Centigrade. Since we’ve already seen Earth System warming on the order of 1 degree Celsius above 1880s values, the great forest is now feeling the stress of this added heat. But the forest is now also suffering the insults of what amounts to a half century of slash and burn agriculture. Immense swaths of the forest have been cut and burned away, converted into farmlands. Increasingly, large sections of the forest are isolated into smaller, less productive islands. In addition, the ongoing burning of vast tracts of woodland adds a fire pressure to an already heat-stressed rainforest.

Carbon dioxide hotspots Copernicus

(The Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System [CAMS] shows a significant carbon dioxide plume rising up off of the fires now burning in the Amazon Rainforest. It was a prediction made by global climate models that human forced warming could turn the Amazon into a net carbon emissions source by the middle of this Century. For the period of Fall 2015, heat and drought have done exactly that. Image source: CAMS.)

Finally, this year, Brazil is experiencing the effects of what is likely to become the strongest El Nino ever recorded. Such Pacific Ocean warming events have a tendency to push the rainforest to dry. And with the great Amazon already suffering from at least a decade of drought, the new, extremely intense El Nino is providing yet one more severe insult on top of all the other damage inflicted by both human warming of the atmosphere and by slash and burn agriculture.

Megacities Suffering Severe Water Shortages

As the Amazon rainforest suffers clear cutting, wildfire, and drought, it pumps less and less water into the atmosphere. Its once massive ‘flying rivers’ are drying out. The loss of these immense atmospheric moisture flows has a particularly acute impact on lands bordering the Amazon — especially in the region of Brazil’s coastal cities. Over the past two decades, the massive cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have suffered from increasingly frequent droughts. However, over the past three years, drought has been particularly extreme.

In Sao Paulo, unofficial water rationing began about two years ago and has remained in effect ever since. Today, the region’s largest reservoir — the Cantariera — remains below dead pool levels even as other reservoirs have fallen under increasing stress. The result is that many of the area’s 20 million people are starting to migrate to cities with better water security. Cities like Jundiai where water conservation policies have prevented shortages despite an ongoing drying of the surrounding countryside.

Brazil Drought NOAA El Nino

(In the July-September 2015 rainfall graphic measure provided by NOAA, we see the Amazon Rainforest experiencing severe water deficits in conjunction with the warmest global temperatures on record and what is likely to become the strongest El Nino on record. A heat pressure that has resulted in severe wildfire outbreaks throughout the Amazon this month. Such impacts will further reduce the moisture content of the flying rivers the cities of Southern Brazil depend on. Image source: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.)

In Rio de Janeiro, the situation is still somewhat better than in Sao Paulo. Water cut-offs have not yet begun in this city of 10 million even though local reservoirs are also starting to dry up. But if dry conditions continue, 2016-2017 will almost certainly see Brazil’s second largest city fall into a crisis similar to that of Sao Paulo.

A recent report by NPR highlights the severity of Brazil’s coastal cities drought:

And [Sao Paulo] is not alone. Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, is also facing water troubles, as are other coastal areas. It’s been an enormous shock to Brazilians, who are used to their country being called “the Saudi Arabia of Water…” But not anymore. Satellite data from NASA shows that the drought in much of southeast Brazil — also home to the region’s breadbasket — is much worse than originally believed.

If these droughts continue, they will threaten to collapse the cities of eastern Brazil. They will put a strain on electricity supplies, on commercial activity, and on practically every aspect of city life — which is largely dependent upon access to water. In eastern Brazil, more than 30 million people now face the threat of this climate change induced destabilization. But what’s worse is the fact that the ongoing burning and drought in the Amazon to the north practically ensures that the flying rivers will continue to wilt, that the droughts in the southeast will grow to become city-killers.



CAMS Atmospheric Monitoring

As Brazil’s Largest City Struggles with Drought, Residents are Leaving

Drought Takes Hold as Amazon’s Flying Rivers Disappear

New NASA Data Shows Brazil’s Drought Deeper than Previously Thought

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

Drought Threatens Water Truck Lifeline in Northeastern Brazil

Is Brazil Nearly Out of Water?

Brazil, Land of Water, Goes Thirsty

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