If you thought unscrupulous logging practices were the only threat to the world's largest rainforest, then think again. According to a new study, one extremely powerful storm in 2005 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 441 million to 663 million trees along the Amazon basin in just a matter of days, releasing an untold amount of carbon into the atmosphere. What's worse is that as global temperatures rise from CO2 emissions worldwide, such powerful storms may become all the more common -- resulting in a vicious cycle that could accelerate the effects of climate change.Researchers had noted the loss off a significant number of trees in the Amazon during the middle part of the last decade, but up until now it was thought that the trees perished during a drought in the region. Closer inspection, aided by satellite imaging, found that nearly half a billion trees had in fact been blown over, likely from a powerful storm that passed through the Amazon in 2005.
Jeffrey Chambers, a forest ecologist at Tulane University and one of the authors of the study, explains to UPI:
We can't attribute [the increased] mortality to just drought in certain parts of the basin -- we have solid evidence that there was a strong storm that killed a lot of trees over a large part of the Amazon. If a tree dies from a drought, it generally dies standing. It looks very different from trees that die snapped by a storm.
The storm in question passed through the affected area over the course of just two days in January 2005, which resulted in the loss of human life as well. In that period, the study estimates that anywhere from 441 million to 663 million trees died, releasing their stored CO2. All told, the trees lost represents a whopping 23 percent of the total amount of carbon it's estimated the Amazon accumulates each year.
While studies that monitor rainforest loss focus primarily on regions deforested by loggers, the latest research suggests that it may be equally as important to also consider trees killed in storms when gauging the health of the Amazon. Typically, storm related damage has been chalked up to 'natural causes', though in some ways this attribution may not be entirely accurate as climatologists begin to suspect a warming planet may result in more powerful storms.
Chambers explains one of the study's main objectives, via ScienceBlog:
It's very important that when we collect data in the field we do forensics on tree mortality. Under a changing climate, some forecasts say that storms will increase in intensity. If we start seeing increases in tree mortality, we need to be able to say what's killing the trees.
Any lost of trees in the Amazon rainforest is disconcerting considering it's important role as 'the lungs of the Earth', particularly when considering the damage wreaked by a single storm system over such a short period of time, which human activity may very well have played a hand in making so powerful.
As the debate rages on about how and to what extent carbon emissions should be curbed, it is tragically ironic to think that global warming may be producing storms intense enough to do such damage to a region of the world that plays such an important role in keeping our planet habitable.
A full report of the study, funded by NASA and Tulane University, will appear in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.