Global warming may impact regional precipitation and deforestation in the Amazon, potentially pushing it towards partial or complete collapse. This alarm comes from research conducted by the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil, in collaboration with scientists from the University of Birmingham, published in Nature. The study has identified potential thresholds for these stressors, illustrating how their combined effects could lead the Amazon forest to a point of no return. Here, even the smallest disruption could trigger a drastic change in the ecosystem’s state. The authors hope that by understanding the primary environmental stressors of the rainforest, we can develop pathways to maintain Amazon resilience.

“Composite disturbances are increasingly common within the Amazon core; if these disturbances act in synergy, we could observe unexpected ecosystem transitions in areas previously considered resilient, such as the wet forests of western and central Amazonia,” said Bernardo Flores, from the University of Santa Catarina and lead author.

Among the potential disruptions to the ecosystem are scenarios where the forest may recover but remains trapped in a degraded state dominated by opportunistic plants like bamboo and vines. Alternatively, it may fail to recover, remaining in an open and flammable canopy state. The research results are significant due to the vital role the Amazon plays in the global climate system. For example, Amazon trees store enormous amounts of carbon, and if released, this could accelerate global warming. Previous studies have shown that during the 2015 drought, the Amazon temporarily acted as a carbon sink.

“We have evidence that rising temperatures, extreme droughts, and fires can influence forest functioning and alter the tree species that enrich the forest system,” said Adriane Esquivel-Muelbert, from the Institute of Forest Research at Birmingham and co-author of the study. “With global climate change accelerating at unprecedented levels, it is increasingly likely that we will see cycles of positive feedback, where forest loss reinforces itself,” Esquivel-Muelbert continued. The study also examined the role of biodiversity and local communities in shaping Amazon resilience. The researchers argue that the success of approaches will depend on a combination of local efforts, including cooperation among Amazonian countries to halt deforestation in favor of restoration, and global efforts, including halting greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change. During the recent COP28 climate conference, the team of scientists published a series of policy documents outlining measures that local, regional, and global organizations must take to prevent the Amazon from reaching a critical point of no return.

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