The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical forest on Earth and its destruction has many long lasting effects including: loss of biodiversity, accelerating climate change, and influencing large-scale synoptic weather patterns, including those in South and North America.
Deforestation comes in many forms. In many cases, it starts with a road cutting through the forest, which then allows loggers, farmers, miners and hunters to easily access once-isolated areas. It has been reported that 95% of all forest destruction in the Amazon occurs within 5 km of a road.Both local and international demands drive deforestation, as swaths of forest are slashed and burned for subsistence plots as well as industrial plantations. In the Amazon, much of the larger-scale destruction is on behalf of cattle ranching and soybean production. Furthermore, government programs and policies, such as those for increased transportation infrastructure, can lead to unintentional deforestation as roads are built through the forest2.
In terms of absolute loss, approximately 25,000 square kilometers of Amazonian forest has been cleared each year on average in the decade of the 1990’s, which is roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts annually. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s report states that Brazil has suffered the most deforestation, with a loss of 42,330,000 hectares (163,436 square miles) – roughly the same area as the state of California2. As much of the Amazon rainforest is found in Brazil, this is significant loss to the world’s most important forest. Overall, it is estimated that 17% of the Amazon has been lost to deforestation within the last half-century. This may not seem like much, but consider this: scientists say that in order to maintain the consistent level of rainfall the rainforest is used to, a minimum of 70% of the Amazon must stay intact. At the current rate of deforestation, we may pass this threshold within the next 50 years. What’s more, it is projected that eighteen of the Amazon’s 32 major forested ecoregions will lose more than 40% of their forest cover by 2050 and 12 will lose more than 70%.
Why should deforestation of the Amazon be stopped? For one thing, it’s the economically smart thing to do: harvesting an acre of timber from the rainforest nets $400/year. Ranching cattle on an acre gives $60/year. However, sustainably harvesting resources from an acre of rainforest nets $2400/year and employs local people. Furthermore, there are many ecological benefits to preserving the Amazon. It is estimated that 11 years worth of carbon emissions are stored in the trees of the Amazon, and roughly a third of all carbon emissions come from burning the rainforest. Therefore, deforestation contributes to global climate change in two facets: by removing an important carbon sink and by releasing greenhouse gases.
The Amazon plays a huge role in regulating global weather patterns. Through transpiration (or releasing water from the leaves of the trees) and other mechanisms, it creates clouds that cause precipitation around the world. Scientists report that deforestation of the Amazon would lead to significant drying not only of that region, but also areas as far away from South America as the Midwest United States and West Africa.
Moreover, the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, with a new species being discovered every three days for the past decade. It grows much of the food we eat, and many of the compounds found in modern medicine originate in the Amazon. If the forest were to be lost, incredibly important resources would disappear along with it, and we would be left scrambling to find their nonexistent replacements.
Learn More about Deforestation
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