Rivers run dry as drought hits Amazon
Droughts are growing more severe. Has the world's largest rain forest reached its tipping point?
MUTUM, Brazil — A motorboat barreling through the night up a shallow Amazon stream could only beat the odds for so long.
Just after 9 p.m., the aluminum canoe slammed to a halt with the sound of a thunderclap. Passengers and cargo lurched into the air. Shouts of surprise, profanity and a man-sized splash echoed in the dark.
A swift lesson on Newtonian physics and the risks of night boating had been delivered by a large, semi-submerged tree.
The mishap demonstrated what everyone in this remote corner of the Brazilian jungle had been saying for days.
The world's largest rain forest was dangerously dry, and may well be drying out.
October marked the end of one of the worst Amazon droughts on record — a period of tinder-dry forests, dusty cropland and rivers falling to unprecedented lows. Streams are the highways of the deep jungle and they're also graveyards for dead trees, usually hidden safely under fathoms of navigable water.
But not this year, and the drought's significance extends far beyond impeded boats.
While the region has seen dry spells before, locals and experts say droughts have grown more frequent and severe. Scientists say there's mounting evidence the Amazon's shifting weather may be caused by global climate change.
The world's largest rain forest has long been a bulwark of hope for a planet troubled by climate change. Covering an area the size of the continental United States, the Amazon holds 20 percent of Earth's fresh water and generates a fifth of its oxygen. With the planet's climate increasingly threatened by surging carbon emissions, the Amazon has been one of the few forces keeping them in check. But the latest scientific evidence suggests the forest may be unable to shield us from a hotter world.
"Every ecosystem has some point beyond which it can't go," said Oliver Phillips, a tropical ecology professor at the University of Leeds who has spent decades studying how forests react to changing weather. "The concern now is that parts of the Amazon may be approaching that threshold."
Phillips led a team of dozens of researchers who studied the damage caused by a severe 2005 drought to trees and undergrowth at more than 100 sites across the Amazon. His findings, published in the journal Science, are troubling.
Through photosynthesis, the rain forest absorbs 2 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide each year. But the 2005 drought caused a massive die-off of trees and inverted the process. Like a vacuum cleaner expelling its dust, the Amazon released 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2005. All told, the drought caused an extra 5 billion tons of heat-trapping gases to end up in the atmosphere — more than the combined annual emissions of Europe and Japan.
It still remains to be seen whether the rain forest's ability to absorb greenhouse gases has been permanently harmed. "We can't say for sure — it could be happening now," Phillips said. "Often you don't know you've passed a turning point until you've already passed it."
Phillips said he's worried about yet another drought following so closely after the last. Along the edge of the forest in Peru and Bolivia, there were more fires this year than any year on record, he said, along with reports of substantial damage to plants in the normally wet northwestern Amazon.
"The humid tropical forests have evolved at pretty high temperatures but there's a temperature at which you don't see them on the planet," said Greg Asner, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. "And some tropical forests in the world now are starting to be exposed to temperatures they've never experienced."
Asner recently completed a study of world rain forests showing just how extensive the damage could be. He took 16 leading models for predicting the next century of climate change and essentially created a map — showing hotspots where they all agreed rising greenhouse gases would substantially change the forest.
He found that higher temperatures and shifts in rainfall could leave as much as 37 percent of the Amazon so radically altered that the plants and animals living there now would be forced to adapt, move or die. When other man-made factors like logging are taken into account, the portion of affected forest could be as high as 81 percent.
Asner said melting polar ice sheets aren't the only climate change sentinels out there. The world's largest rain forest — drained, drying, sometimes burning — is on the front lines, too, and just as threatened.
"I hate to pit myself against the polar bears," he said. "But we're talking about the Amazon, the majority of the biodiversity on the planet is in the humid tropical forests."
Locals call the Amazon's annual dry spells "the burning season," named for the forest fires landholders regularly set to make room for crops and cows. In past decades, fires kindled on the jungle's edges burned themselves out once they advanced a few yards into permanently damp virgin forest.
But that changed with the 2005 drought, said Foster Brown, an environmental scientist at the federal university in the Brazilian state of Acre.
"The ecosystems here have become so dry that instead of a being a barrier to fire, the forest became kindling," he said. "We've changed from a situation where a relatively small part of the region would be susceptible to fire to the entire region being susceptible to fire."
Burned forests aren't the only evidence of drought. This year, one of the Amazon River's biggest tributaries, the Rio Negro, dropped 13 feet below its dry-season average — to the lowest level on record. Channels in some areas have become little more than winding belts of mud — leaving boats stranded and remote communities cut off from supplies.
In response, the Brazilian government announced last month it was releasing $13.5 million in emergency aid. The Amazonas state government reported it had distributed 600 tons of food aid by boat and plane, after nearly half its municipalities declared a state of emergency affecting more than 62,000 people.
Further west in the state of Acre, rivers remained navigable, but only just. The remote community of Mutum is home to about 650 people who live in a thatch-roofed homes grouped beside a riverbank. The place is normally six hours by boat from the nearest road. At the height of this year's drought, the trip took 12 hours.
But it wasn't boating that had village chief Mariazinha Yawanawa worried. Her people are sustained by the forest. They hunt in the woods, fish the rivers and grow crops in the clearings where they live.
They have felt the ground become dusty and hard, she said, and they've seen the smoke on the horizon.
"I've never seen a year like this," she said. "Every morning, when all the family members meet, we're asking each other, 'What is happening?'"
Mariazinha, 41, had overcome ancient obstacles to become the community's first female chief. Explaining how she managed it, one tribal leader shrugged and said, "She's tougher than the men."
But the subject of weather left this brawny, confident woman sounding distraught.
"Everything has changed. We don't know when we can plant. We plant and then the sun kills everything," Mariazinha said. "If it continues like this, we expect a tragedy."
And the point she pressed upon her visitors was, perhaps they should be worried, too.
"I ask you," she said, "as someone who lives in the outside world who knows the tragedy that's happening there — is there anything we can do?"
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.