TITLE: FEARS of a FIERY AMAZON NIGHTMARE 7-year study has implications for the global warming debate SOURCE: ASSOCIATED PRESS STATUS: Copyrighted 1997, contact source for reprint permissions DATE: December 7, 1997 BYLINE: By Todd Lewan
At least half of the Amazon rain forest is a tinderbox ready to go up in smoke, raising the specter of an ecological disaster that may wipe out the world's largest wilderness. About 12 percent of the 2-million- square-mile jungle is already gone, and burning has been so intense in recent months that a lake caught fire and people are being treated for respiratory ailments.
A NEW SEVEN-YEAR study suggests the burning may get much worse: The rain forest -even at its pristine core - is dangerously dry and flammable because of logging, deliberate burning around its edges and El Nino. The Associated Press obtained the research this week.
In one test in October, American and Brazilian scientists threw a match on kerosene that had been sprinkled in a small parcel of undisturbed jungle in Paragominas in the eastern Amazon. Normally the moist vegetation wouldn't catch. But this time, 300 acres went up in flames.
"We're on the edge of a catastrophe,"said Daniel Nepstad, a scientist for the Woods Hole Research Center, a Massachusetts-based institute that conducted the research at five test sites across the Brazilian rain forest. "A lot of the Amazon has lost its capacity to protect itself from fire. When the forest is this dry, small fires can turn into giant ones and take off into primary forests."
Steve Schwartzman, director of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the research shows that the danger to the rain forest "has been taken to another level." "Suddenly, it's gone from a slow, incremental process of cutting virgin rain forest to a potentially catastrophic situation," he said.
THE GLOBAL WARMING CONNECTION
The alarm comes as representatives from more than 150 nations gather in Kyoto, Japan in hopes of finding solutions to global warming, which some scientists say is worsened by the burning of rain forests.
Tropical forests absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, one of the gases that traps solar heat and is thought to increase global warming. Also, the burning adds to the atmosphere's carbon accumulation. And this year, the Amazon and other rain forests have been scorched like never before. Burning of Indonesian forests has released as much carbon in 1997 as all fossil fuel emissions in Europe.
"If you put Indonesian burning and Amazon burning together, you'd see that more of the world was on fire in 1997 than ever in recorded history," said Thomas Lovejoy, an ecological consultant at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Philip Fearnside, an American scientist at Brazil's National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus, said burning half of the Amazon would release 35 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere - the equivalent of six years' worth of worldwide fossil fuel emissions. "That'll turn up global warming a notch," he said.
FIRST HARD EVIDENCE
The Woods Hole research is the first hard evidence that suggests the Indonesia scenario may soon be repeated across the Amazon. In October, researchers dug 35-foot shafts into the clay soil of unlogged Brazilian rain forest at five different sites. Several years earlier, they had struck water deposits thick at that depth. This time, nothing.
Next, scientists tested the forests with kerosene and matches. "All of the fires just took off," said Nepstad.That wouldn't have happened if trees had deep-soil water "pools" to tap, said Nepstad. Normally, trees suck up the underground water through their roots and pump vapor out through their leaves. That saturates the atmosphere and triggers rain. But the pools have dried up across the Amazon in the last two years, partly because of a drought brought on by El Nino, the ocean- atmosphere phenomenon that has been disrupting weather patterns around the globe.
Farmers who burn scrub in cleared areas to fertilize the weak soil are drying out underground pockets of water in adjacent forest. And logging of precious hardwoods in scattered patches opens holes in the Amazon canopy and permits more sunlight to enter the forest, drying the air, soil and ground. Drought makes trees shed their leaves, allowing more sunlight to parch the soil. "It becomes a vicious cycle," said Nepstad.
"Maybe God will smile on us and we'll get seven straight years of astounding rains in the Amazon and put the issue on different footing," said Schwartzman. "But with El Nino here, don't count on it."