3 ways climate change affects tropical rainforests

© Pete Oxford/iLCP

This post was updated on December 8, 2020.

Not everyone lives in a tropical rainforest — but everyone benefits from them.

Home to nearly half of the plants and wildlife on Earth, tropical rainforests perform an essential function for the climate by absorbing carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, tropical forests are being cut down at an alarming rate across the globe, and releasing more than 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — equivalent to 15 percent of all human-induced carbon emissions.

Multiple studies show that climate change is harming tropical forests. But there’s hope. With insight from climate experts, Conservation News explores how the climate crisis is hurting tropical forests — and how humanity can protect them. 

1. Changing climate leads to forest degradation. 

Scientists say that deforestation in the Amazon is pushing this ecosystem to a tipping point at which the forest will gradually turn into dry savanna. Once sufficiently degraded, the forest will lose its ability to generate its own rainfall, thereby preventing the rainforest ecosystem from being able to exist at all. Instead of leafy forests teeming with wildlife, the Amazon would be a desolate expanse of shrublands. 

And after a series of devastating fires burned through the Amazon in 2019, this rainforest is inching ever closer to its dreaded tipping point. 

“We know that there has been an increase in deforestation in the last couple of years in the Amazon,” said Karyn Tabor, senior director of ecological monitoring in Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science, in a recent interview with Conservation News. “And when there is more deforestation, there are going to be more fires.”

Studies in the Amazon River basin predict that a rise in temperature corresponds with a 10-20 percent reduction in rainfall. As temperatures increase, so do forest fires. Tropical rainforests typically get more than 100 inches of rain a year, but each year this number decreases — creating a chain effect of consequences.

“In the tropics, especially the tropical Amazon — the forests are not meant to burn. So, once these forests burn, then the forests are really degraded and they’re more likely to burn again,” said Tabor. “The key is preventing the fires and also improving resilience of these forests — keeping them intact, trying to prevent degradation.”

The good news: Tabor developed Firecast, a NASA-funded forest fire monitoring and alert system for the tropics, which uses satellite inputs to alert to dangerous fire weather conditions and detect fires before they spread. “The satellites will detect a fire and within a couple hours we can send an alert to decision-makers in the field about where fires are happening,” she said. 

Technological innovations are a way in which science and data can be used to combat climate change.

2. As deforestation increases, so do food shortages. 

About 1.2 billion people in the world rely on tropical rainforests for survival. Unfortunately, agriculture, both large- and small-scale farming, is responsible for the majority of tropical deforestation— which is accelerating climate breakdown.

Studies show that since 1980 a decrease in annual rainfall due to the changing climate has created a steady decline of corn, wheat, soybeans and rice. Additionally, a rise in global temperatures is causing trees and plants to produce fruit earlier or later than before — throwing off the species that feed on them, including humans. 

This jeopardizes the livelihoods of local farmers, who depend on the crops commonly grown in the rainforest including coffee, bananas, lemons and peanuts to make money and to feed their families. 

The good news: Farmers surrounding tropical forests can help stop climate change, without sacrificing agricultural production, according to recent research by Conservation International’s Bronson Griscom.

This research revealed that protecting or restoring carbon in soil can provide 3 billion tons of cost-effective climate mitigation per year, while increasing agricultural production.

“In agricultural systems, such as crop or livestock farms, carbon can actually increase the fertility of the soil, which can improve crop growth, increase water storage and enhance the health of the entire farm,” said Griscom, who leads Conservation International’s natural climate solutions work, in a recent interview. “This research does not suggest that agricultural systems should be abandoned, but rather that they are better managed to improve carbon storage, soil health and sustainable food production.” 

Through climate-smart agricultural techniques, farmers in the tropics can increase the carbon stored in their soil and produce more food for growing populations, while decreasing their overall carbon footprint. 

3. Degraded forests and food shortages result in an increased number of threatened species.

Tropical rainforests are home to nearly 30 million species of plants and animals, which heavily rely on another for survival. As plant growth dwindles, these animals become vulnerable.

In 2019, a landmark UN report revealed that nearly 1 million species face extinction due to human activities and climate change. In response to increasing temperatures, animal species are moving toward the north and south poles and up mountains to escape the heat as the climate warms — which could also lead them closer to extinction, explained Senior Climate Change Scientist Lee Hannah. 

“When human activities accelerate climate change, species are going to try to follow those climates that are suitable for them rather than adapting to new ones,” explained Hannah. “For many species, this requires moving upslope — but at a certain point, there will be nowhere left to go, which is what we call the ‘escalator to extinction.’”

The good news: Recent research led by Hannah shows that conserving just 30 percent of tropical lands could cut species extinction rates in half. 

“It’s really important to note that ‘conserving 30 percent of tropical land’ isn’t just about creating national parks or protected areas (although that’s a good start for many places),” said Hannah. “There is a whole suite of possible conservation tools that governments can implement to protect biodiversity while benefiting from the land, including protected areas, national parks, community conservancies and indigenous-managed conservation areas.”  

However, establishing these areas is just the beginning, Hannah added, keeping them intact and supporting them is crucial to conserving tropical forests and slowing climate breakdown.

Jessica Pink was an editorial intern for Conservation International.


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