Destruction of Amazon Rainforest Visible From Space
by Lisa Winter
Photo credit: NASA
The Amazon rainforest stretches over 5.5 million square kilometers, 60% of which is in Brazil. It is home to millions of species that make up 10% of all of Earth’s biodiversity, including 40,000 different plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and over 370 reptile species. There are nearly 400 billion trees across 16,000 species in the rainforest, but sadly, Brazil has a deforestation problem so large, it can be seen from space.
In August, NASA released a picture of the Amazon rainforest burning as seen from the ISS. Not only does this decimate the habitat of millions of species in the region, but it is also aggravating climate change.
Over the last 40 years, 20% of the rainforest has been cleared for timber and to make room for farm land. While those seeking timber need to cut the trees down manually, farmers who seek to expand their crop fields will often just burn the trees down. Deforestation is always a problem because it removes trees capable of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Though the Amazon takes up only 5% of the planet’s land area, it takes up and stores 10% of atmospheric carbon. When trees die or are cleared, it releases that carbon.
It has been estimated that deforestation represents 15% of all CO2 emissions in the world, which is more than all automobiles combined. If deforestation is permitted to continue unchecked, it will severely exacerbate the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, bolstering the effects of climate change. Over the next several years, deforestation could pump 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Today (September 23) the UN Climate Summit is meeting in New York, and deforestation is on the table. Brazil has not endorsed the document, however, as they have stated that they were not consulted with when the anti-deforestation initiative was drafted. Brazilian law does permit legal deforestation for private land owners and to meet basic public needs, but Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira told The Associated Press that her country seeks to focus on ending deforestation that is done illegally.
Though deforestation has been declining in recent years, 2013 saw a 28% increase compared to 2012. It is hard to determine how much of that has been done illegally, as a key tactic among those committing environmental crime is to forge the documents and permits.
Toward the end of August, Brazilian officials announced the arrest of eight key members of a group responsible for the majority of illegal logging in the Amazon, and another six were still at large. Since the arrests, the rate of deforestation in the area has fallen from 13.1 square miles per week to zero in the first week of September. This was welcomed news, given that Brazil has previously been plagued with controversy involving corruption where the environment is involved.
In an effort to stop deforestation elsewhere in the world, Norway announced they will pay Liberia US$150 million to stop cutting down trees. BBC reports that the Ebola outbreak may increase in illegal logging in Liberia as many are desperate and strapped for cash. A portion of the money from Norway will be used for surveillance crews and equipment, with communities getting paid to protect the forest.