Story at a glance
- The statistic of the decade is the more than 15 million acres of Amazon rainforest that have been lost to deforestation in the preceding 10 years, according to the Royal Statistical Society.
- The losses come at the cost of the region’s priceless biodiversity and ability to sequester carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change.
- Scientists say if deforestation is allowed to continue unabated, then the Amazon could wither and become savanna, releasing billions of tons of planet-warming carbon in the process.
The Amazon is a global treasure of plant and animal life, as well as a bulwark against climate change. Rainforests absorb and store vast quantities of planet-warming carbon dioxide, but their huge trees can’t provide this service if they’re chopped down. Worse, if the forest is lost to fire, all that stored carbon is released directly into the atmosphere.
The deforestation total for the decade is based on monitoring from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. In 2019, the deforestation rate in Brazil jumped up 30 percent from the year before. The deforestation is primarily driven by land clearing for cattle ranching and agriculture, but has been exacerbated by rising temperatures, drought and fire related to climate change.
To date, 17 percent of the entire Amazon has been destroyed, and research from 2015 found that these losses have reduced the rainforest’s ability to absorb carbon.
The ignominious 10-year superlative comes as scientists warn that the largest rainforest on Earth has reached a dangerous tipping point that could cause large chunks to irreversibly die back, transforming into savanna. Scientists say if the Amazon doesn’t get enough rain — a problem exacerbated by deforestation and global warming — the withering forest could release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
But researchers say it’s not too late, and they urge governments to put a halt to the rainforest’s deforestation for the sake of the planet and future generations.