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Ecological balance threatened

Forest suffers from constant high temperatures, prolonged dry season and rampant fires and is gradually ceasing to spread moisture into the atmosphere. Situation worsens in the south of the Amazon region. In forest and cities it is increasingly difficult to breathe.

Ana Danin

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (UFPA/ET-Multi)


We are just a few months away from the end of 2022. Concerning the Amazon, this can already be considered a year of successive negative milestones, as such, it worries climatologists, environmentalists and researchers. Peak rates of fires and deforestation have been registered, in addition to warnings about climate change that impacts the lives not only of those who live in the Amazon region, but also of populations from farther places and countries.

Earlier this month, an article in the scientific publication ‘Nature’ confirmed what Brazilian researchers have already been warning: the humidity of the Amazon rainforest is decreasing while there is an increase in the dryness of the air in the region. The study is signed by researchers from the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom, and it has identified that these changes are related to temperature shifts, which are progressively higher due to the advance and persistence of fires in the biome.

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The scientific paper is signed by authors Paul Ritchie, Isobel Parry, Joseph J. Clarke and Peter M. Co. It has ascertained a 4% reduction in the so-called evaporative fraction, in the last three decades, with an increase in thermal amplitude of 1ºC. The evaporative fraction is the ratio between the flow of energy reaching and leaving the earth's surface. In fact, the researchers found that the drier and warmer Amazon is no longer retaining rainwater and, through the phenomenon of evapotranspiration, failing to spread moisture throughout the atmosphere. A corroborating factor  is the extension of the dry season, even in areas that are still preserved in the forest, contributing to a higher mortality of trees. The result is the Amazon forest no longer absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) and turning into a spreader of CO2, the main greenhouse gas.

According to Carlos Nobre, co-chair of the Scientific Panel for the Amazon and senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo (USP), the paper signed by researchers at the British university was based on mathematical models of climate called “Models of the Earth System”, and is further categorical evidence of the effects of warming on the biome. Professor Carlos Nobre points out that the study published in Nature is in line with the results of other studies, based on field observations, through Experimento de Grande Escala da Biosfera-Atmosfera na Amazônia (Projeto LBA) [Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in the Amazon], which have also been warning about the temperature rise and the effects of global warming in the Amazon since the late 1990s.

Nobre also alerts that the situation is worse in the south of the Amazon, in the stretch that comprises southern Pará, northern Mato Grosso, southern Amazonas, Acre and the Bolivian Amazon. According to him, this area is the one closest to the so-called “point of no return”, when the impacts of climate change driven by human action can no longer be reversed and the forest, as we know it, will disappear, giving rise to a “open-air ecosystem, with few trees, similar to a tropical savannah, but without the rich biodiversity of the Cerrado”, he explains.

Disbelief - Despite all the scientific warnings, part of the society still keeps a skeptical look on the threatening alerts of science about the possible disappearance of the Amazon, as we know it today. However, the researchers explain that the impacts do not materialize in the forest in a single act, as on the screen of “disaster cinema” movies. The change is already taking place and will continue to advance if effective measures to protect and defend the biome are not taken urgently. “We are talking about (switching to) an ecosystem with a dry season of five, six months a year, much warmer, with temperatures above 35°C, where many trees would disappear, with losses of tens of thousands of species”, warns the USP researcher.

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Fires in Novo Progresso, state of Pará - Photo: Fernando Souza - AGIF-AE/archive

Fire is not a natural element of the biome

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Carlos Nobre reinforces that researchers  will launch a proposal for a Forest restoration arch to the Amazon, in the COP-27 - Photo: Marcelo Camargo - ABR

Unlike the Cerrado – a biome that underwent fire effect from natural causes (such as combustion caused by lightning), one of the historical components for the formation of vegetation – the Amazon does not have fire as one of its natural elements. According to researcher Carlos Nobre, even in the dry season, the soil temperature is in the range of up to 26°C and, in the treetops, it should not exceed 30°. “This is the temperature range under which biodiversity has always used to evolve. The leaves will no longer practice photosynthesis if the temperature reaches above 42 degrees”, he points out.

However, fires and deforestation-related numbers continue to rise. Data released by Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia (Imazon) [Institute of Man and the Environment of the Amazon] proved that the accumulated deforestation in the Amazon in the period of eight months this year has reached almost 8 thousand km², the largest extension in the last 15 years. The researchers found that, in August alone, 1,415 km² of forest were cut down. Also, according to the Imazon report, forest degradation caused by logging and fires in the region grew 54 times compared to the same month last year. The degraded area increased from 18 km² in August 2021 to 976 km² in August 2022, an increase of 5,322%.

COP 27- Professor Carlos Nobre says that the Scientific Panel for the Amazon, an initiative linked to the UN's Network of Solutions for Sustainable Development, which involves more than 200 renowned scientists and researchers from eight countries, will lead to urgent action in favor of the Amazon region to COP-27, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, scheduled for November this year, in Egypt. “We need to act very quickly to stop deforestation, stop forest degradation, reforest and regenerate a large part of the southern Amazon. We are going to launch a proposal for a Forest Restoration Arch at COP-27”, he concludes.

Environmental issue needs to be treated as a priority

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Lincoln Alves, from Inpe, explains that the impact of climate changes is very clear - Photo: Gustavo Gomes

Researcher Lincoln Alves, from the General Coordination of Earth Sciences, from the National Institute for Space Research (CGCT-Inpe), corroborates with colleagues from the United Kingdom and the Scientific Panel for the Amazon. He emphasizes that, over the last few decades, the various field research and modeling complement each other and bring unsetting information about the process that the Amazon region has been going through. “Under a scientific perspective, there is no longer any doubt about what has been happening, in terms of the climate”, he says

“Anyone who lives, knows or studies the Amazon, understands very clearly that it is not just one single “Amazon”, there are many “Amazons”, and all of them have been impacted by the climate changes, he advocates, explaining that the impacts are noticed in different levels throughout the biome greatness, and that the satellite images are another evidence that the Amazon scenario has been modified during the years.

Data published by Inpe revealed that only in the first seven days of September this year, the number of fires in the Amazon overpassed the fires of the entire month of September 2021. There were 18,374 fires from the 1st to the 7th day of September - almost 10% more than the number of fire spots registered in the whole month last year. Besides, earlier in September, the smoke from fires in the Amazon reached São Paulo and other states in the southeast and south of Brazil.

The researcher alerts that the environmental issue needs to be part of the country's priority agenda, regardless of who wins this year's majority elections, and that Brazil needs to play a main role in this area.

Respiratory disorders increase and raise public costs

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Sandra Hacon, researcher of Fiocruz, regrets the lack of orientation campaigns at the dry season - Photo: Virgínia Damas

In addition to the direct impact on the climate of the biome, the increase of deforestation and fires in the Amazon produces another serious and worrying effect. A study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) and WWF-Brasil related the percentage of hospital admissions due to respiratory problems resulting from fires, between 2010 and 2020, in the states where the highest number of hot weather areas in that decade were found: Amazonas, Pará, Mato Grosso, Acre and Rondônia.

The research, published in 2021, considered that, “even if the rates are possibly under reported, due to inconsistencies in the DataSUS database, the extremely high daily values of pollutants contributed to increase, by up to two times, the risk of hospitalization for respiratory disorders provoked by the concentration of micro inhalable particles (smoke) in the states analyzed”.

According to the report, in Amazonas, the percentage of hospital admissions related to high concentrations of smoke was 87% in the analyzed period. The document highlights that in Mato Grosso, Acre and Rondônia this percentage was 70% and, in Pará, 68%. When the researchers evaluated hospitalizations for respiratory diseases, the percentage associated with smoke was the same: 70%

The study also revealed that Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS) spent in health treatment costs approximately R$1 billion Reais with hospitalizations in these states, resulting from high concentrations of atmospheric pollutants.

Babies, pregnant women, elderly people and those with comorbidities are most at risk

Researcher Sandra Hacon, from Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública of Fiocruz [National School of Public Health], who took part in the project carried out in partnership with WWF-Brasil, explains that the components of smoke resulting from the fires contain organic and inorganic particles, including carcinogens. The combination of the smoke with the low relative humidity of the drier season, and with the high temperatures, increases the risk of diseases. “These pollutants cause rhinitis, sinusitis, otitis, and may even result in sinus cancer, for example. These effects are likely to be much worse in vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, children, people with comorbidities such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and respiratory disorders”, says Sandra, alerting that it is usually people from vulnerable groups who are hospitalized during this period.

Outdoor physical activities should be avoided during dry season

Hacon alerts that, in municipalities where the smoke caused by fires is more intense, the population should avoid practicing outdoor physical activities during the dry season. “When practicing physical activities, it is common to breathe through the mouth. However, in this organ, there is no kind of pollution 'filter' (unlike the nostrils). Thus, the particles that enter the mouth, passe through the gastrointestinal system and go straight into the bloodstream,” she warns. “When a person exercises, blood flow increases and the lung becomes more capillary, that is, it dilates, increasing the ability to absorb gases. This is good in an environment with no pollution, low relative humidity and high temperature. With drier air, high temperatures and smoke inhalation, this is an explosive combination”, she adds, also highlighting that the loss of lung function is a process that occurs in the body asymptomatically.

Due to all these risks, she regrets the lack of orientation campaigns to avoid the practice of outdoor activities at this time of year. “There should be awareness campaigns to advise people to avoid outdoor sport activities. There should be a health emergency protocol at the hospitals for this time of year - especially from July to October ”, she says. She  also points out that people with heart and kidney disease, in a critical condition like this, can suffer serious consequences, such as heart attack, ischemia and angina, conditions that  might lead to death.

Respiratory crises and frequent nosebleed events

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Giovanna has been greatly impacted by the effects of smoke - Photo: Rayda Lima

Social media Giovanna Marquioro, 26, has been living in the municipality of Marabá, in the Southeastern region of Pará, for 8 years. She has been diagnosed with rhinitis and sinusitis and usually finds it very difficult to breathe in the driest and hottest period, especially between August and September, when temperatures are much higher. Giovanna remembers that, about two weeks ago, she needed to seek urgent medical care after a heavy nosebleed event. “It was a lot of blood. I think a vase burst when I blew my nose. While I lived in Belém (capital of Pará), I had no breathing problems. It has started here, especially in recent years, I've had more frequent nosebleeds and crisis events,” she said.

According to the “Fire monitor” platform, published by MapBiomas project, in 2022, the area affected by fires in the municipality of Marabá was 9,425 hectares, until the month of August. The number is much higher now than that recorded in the municipality, in the same period of 2021, 5,455 ha. Giovanna, who usually rides a motorcycle around the city, says that, unfortunately, the smoke from the fires is part of the city's scenery. “If we clean up the house in the morning, by the end of the afternoon we have to clean it again, because of the soot”. She reports she usually goes with her friends to the rocks on the bridge of the Tocantins River, one of the rivers on the coast of Marabá. “We can see a good part of the riparian forest and, at night, we can better see the flames of the fires. It’s scary,” she regrets.

In order to  reduce respiratory crises, Giovanna cleans up her nose with nasal saline, in addition to nebulization, at home. On a daily basis, she always keeps a glass of water beside her bed. The researcher Sandra Hacon says that containers with water, humidifiers, wet cloth on the windows, openings in the doors and greater hydration are some measures that can help minimize the effects of the dry season. "It is also important to monitor blood pressure and heart rate at health centers", she concludes.