2010 Amazon drought still visible from space

2010 Amazon drought

It is a bit degrading to science reporting in general. A research group finishes a study, sums up some nice results and makes a deal with an established journal – that lists the work as an upcoming publication. But before Geophysical Research Letters can print its 39th volume NASA knocks on popular science media’s door and offers them the scoop, leaving poor GRL’s marketing department with bits of old news in a few weeks time.

So this weekend Google News showed some interesting stories about a report on Amazon drought that most likely none of the journalists has read – and we should feel even sillier somewhere in between – also lacking the patience to await the actual publication, but then a couple of days late.

Typically in these cases there is news, but there are no associated numbers because these of course are somewhere lost in the original PDF.

So all we now know is NASA on its own website says the rainforest in the Amazon basin has not yet recovered from the unprecedented drought of 2010. Satellite observations show the forest’s ‘greenness’ to be dramatically decreased over vast areas, hinting to a first indication of a feared ecosystem transition – as climate scientists warn much of the remaining South American rainforest may be replaced by savanna biotope [Pampas, Golden Age for Argentine steak] with climate change making droughts increasingly likely.

[It is noteworthy droughts, by definition, are an exotic phenomenon to rainforests, which are characterised by their intensive daily cycle of evaporation and precipitation - the most efficient method for an in fact very limited amount of water to promote a huge abundance of biological activity. It is the dense vegetation itself that helps preserve the rainy cycle. Remove either the rain or the forest and too goes the other - a classic example of a climate tipping point.]

A transition to grass landscapes would lead to a dramatic loss in biodiversity and yet another big leap en route to the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Prolonged drought effects are also very relevant news with respect to the Earth’s carbon cycle – and a possible scenario of sped up climate change, with nature ever increasing CO2 levels through a reduction in natural, shallow carbon stocks.

Such positive feedbacks may have already been activated to some extent. A publication in Science two months ago suggested the biodegradation of the 2010 drought was likely to continue through 2011 – adding up to a total release of 8 Gt CO2 [roughly 25% of annual anthropogenic emissions, land use included] to the atmosphere.

The NASA observations seem to be proof that indeed the forest has not yet recovered from the massive biomass die-off and that the ratio of carbon uptake and emissions [that should be close to zero in any natural environment] is likely still disturbed.

© Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org

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