Up to one fifth of the Amazon rainforest is emitting more CO2 than it absorbs, new research suggests. Results from a decade-long study of greenhouse gases over the Amazon basin appear to show around 20% of the total area has become a net source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
One of the main causes is deforestation. While trees are growing they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; dead trees release it again. Millions of trees have been lost to logging and fires in recent years.
The results of the study, which have not yet been published, have implications for the effort to combat climate change. They suggest that the Amazon rainforest – a vital carbon store, or “sink”, that slows the pace of global warming – may be turning into a carbon source faster than previously thought.
Every two weeks for the past 10 years, a team of scientists led by Prof Luciana Gatti, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), has been measuring greenhouse gases by flying aircraft fitted with sensors over different parts of the Amazon basin.
What the group found was startling: while most of the rainforest still retains its ability to absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide – especially in wetter years – one portion of the forest, which is especially heavily deforested, appears to have lost that capacity.
“We observed that this area in the south-east is an important source of carbon. And it doesn’t matter whether it is a wet year or a dry year. 2017-18 was a wet year, but it didn’t make any difference.”