The path opposite the river led me straight into the depths of the forest. I crossed the thick threshold of trees that lined the clearing where we had set up our tent. The landscape that unfolded before my eyes in that dense and remote forest was simply humbling. Around me, the songs of at least a dozen species of birds overlapped with the rowdy calls of howler monkeys, creating a truly surreal soundscape. I caught a glimpse of a family of agoutis crossing the forest floor in a single file line. Colorful fungi decorated every crevice of fallen and standing trees alike. The roots of the towering trees with thousand-year-old trunks intertwined infinitely, creating an impenetrable network of forest and life. I have never encountered a place as overwhelmingly beautiful as the Amazon. It hurts me deeply to know that it is still burning.

Despite the widespread media coverage of the 2019 fire season.. this year’s is worse.

Last year, headlines all over the world were flooded with images of flames devouring the Brazilian Amazon, and the world was riveted and responsive. In 2020, obscured by the ongoing pandemic, there has been next to no coverage or public alarm about this year’s fire season. But the fires in the Brazilian Amazon were up by 13% this year, making this the worst fire season in the area in a decade

Other Amazonian countries also report a rise in both the number and severity of fires this year. At the start of October, there were a staggering 28,892 active fires active in the Brazilian Amazon alone. These fires are burning deforested areas and farmland but, most worryingly, they are increasingly affecting protected areas. In Bolivia, one of nine Amazonian countries, more than 25% of this year’s major fires have burned in protected lands. This alarming trend suggests that the rainforest is getting dryer, and fast. 

NASA map of detected fires over the past 2 weeks.

Why are fires in the Amazon so alarming? 

The Amazon is a “keystone ecosystem”. That means its health and wellbeing are fundamentally tied to the health and wellbeing of our climate and planet. In short: When the forest thrives, so does our planet. When the forest suffers, our climate is at risk.

Protecting this vital ecosystem is essential because of its  rich biodiversity, its large carbon stocks, its role in climate regulation, and its status as the largest remaining forest ecosystem in the world. Just as importantly, the Amazon is home to invaluable cultural diversity and to over 24 million people, many of whom belong to indigenous communities. These groups are disproportionately affected by the ongoing fires, which are burning inside their territories and threatening their survival. An increase in respiratory diseases brought on by the heavy clouds of smoke, food shortages, and an increased vulnerability to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, have been raising great concern among Indigenous leaders. 

So, what happens when the forest is on fire? 

Fires fueled by deforestation caused by the expansion of the agricultural frontier and destructive policies are putting this ecosystem on the brink of an ecological tipping point. Natural systems normally change gradually; however, when there are strong pressures acting on them, a threshold emerges after which there is a sudden and usually irreversible change. Even when there is just a tiny change over the threshold, the resulting effect can be significant. These changes are driven by feedback loops that act like vicious cycles: the process driving the change feeds itself and makes the change even greater over time. 

To understand this “vicious cycle” that links fires, climate, and deforestation in the Amazon, we need to know how the normal cycle works. The Amazon rainforest acts basically like a giant sponge, trapping and transporting the moisture that is blown in from the Atlantic. Once caught, each water molecule is recycled up to 6 times in the water cycle, being transported as rain and water vapor along the entire Amazon. So, in a way, the rainforest makes its own rain, transports it, and reuses it to sustain itself and to regulate the local climate. 

However, when the Amazon is cut down or burned, especially around its edges in the South and East, the rainforest starts to lose its ability to trap and make rain, becoming drier and drier. This, in turn, makes it more prone to fire, and so the vicious cycle that accelerates drought and fire is complete.

Resilience… and a tipping point

The rainforest has the capacity to bounce back after changes like these. However, if these pressures become too frequent and too intense, the ecosystem is set to reach that fragile tipping point. After reaching that point, it loses its ability to recover. Once past this threshold, the forest will turn into a dry, grassy savannah that can store much less carbon. 

Moreover, in the process of dying, most of the carbon that is sequestered in the forest will be released into the atmosphere, producing the equivalent of five years’ worth of human carbon dioxide emissions. This, in turn, will feed the vicious cycle even more, accelerating drought and fire in the Amazon, and changing both the local and global climate.

What happens in the Amazon doesn’t stay in the Amazon; it affects all of us. 

This dire scenario could be only one or two years away, if the current rate of deforestation is sustained. We are noticing the first flickering of the tipping point, but we aren’t quite there yet. There is still time to reverse this trend.

The tipping point is not yet inevitable 

Although a wicked problem, fires in the Amazon can be addressed through a rounded approach that focuses on cutting emissions, reducing deforestation, improving local governance, strengthening international alliances that fund the protection of the Amazon, and forging strong partnerships that recognize and apply the invaluable knowledge of the indigenous peoples who have lived and protected these rainforests for thousands of years. 

Now, as we think of ways to rebuild our society after the coronavirus pandemic, we have the chance to rebuild our institutions and systems so that they focus on human and environmental well-being, on sustainability and equity and regeneration. Because, as this pandemic has shown us, human societies and the environment are inextricably linked; our health and the planet’s health are one and the same. 

As individuals, we can support this new avenue of development by consciously exercising our power to elect our leaders. We can reduce our consumption of products that indirectly lead to the deforestation of the Amazon and support causes, entities, and institutions whose work aligns with the vision of a healthy and equitable planet

The Amazon rainforest, with its rich wealth of sounds, smells, colors, and cultures, is the epitome of diversity and life. Although we can estimate the enormous cost of the ecosystem services it provides to humanity, its true value is incalculable. Let’s strive to preserve this wonderful and essential place for everyone on the planet, present and future, so that we can all have the chance to marvel and find meaning in its exuberant beauty.

Want to learn more about fires in the Amazon and what you can do?

And what role does COVID-19 play in this already-urgent and serious crisis?

Check out this blog post on COVID-19 and forest fires

Photo credit: Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images.