Unrelenting Drought Clobbers the Amazon

Amazon Rainforest Drought
The Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River, reached its lowest level ever recorded this week.Credit…Bruno Kelly/Reuters

Global warming is consuming vast portions of the planet with a swagger that defies all expectations. Rivers in the Amazon rainforest are drying up. This is not supposed to be happening to such an extent, even during the dry season. After all, it’s a “rainforest” famous for sparkling dew, thick, wet fog with moisture dripping in midair surrounded by an eerie stillness that’s occasionally interrupted by a caw, buzz, shriek, scuttle or click.

“Despite still being in winter, Brazil is expected to record one of the highest temperatures in the world this weekend, comparable to places such as Iran and Iraq. A heat wave has affected all regions of the country, and is mainly causing harm to the Amazon region, which is experiencing one of its driest periods in recent years.” (Source: Heat Wave Turns Amazon States Into ‘Smoke Belt’, The Brazilian Report, September 22, 2023)

Global-warming-enhanced drought has turned into a monster that has battered the Amazon Rainforest every 3-5 years with frequency and severity never before witnessed that puts into question the survivability of large portions of one of the world’s major carbon sinks that’s essential for meeting international targets to limit global warming established at Paris ‘15. Which may already be passé.

According to NASA: “The rainforest doesn’t react like it used to. It does not have enough time between droughts to heal itself and regrow. Throughout all of recorded history, this has never been witnessed.” (Source: Amazon Rainforest is Drying Out. How Much More Abuse Can It Take? DownToEarth, June 29, 2020) That was two years ago; it’s gotten worse.

“In 2021 it was discovered that due to deforestation, parts of the rainforest started emitting more carbon than it held.” (Source: Amazon Deforestation—How much of the Rainforest Is Left? Sentient Media, October 13, 2023)

In only 50 years, twenty percent (20%) of the rainforest has been purposely destroyed. Scientists believe this is uncomfortably close to the “breaking point” when the forest collapses in on itself, transitioning to a scrubby savannah.  The worldwide implications are impossible to describe and likely horrifying.

NASA’s GRACE satellite system shows an Amazon in tenuous condition in an unprecedented state of breakdown. GRACE has detected large areas of the Amazon classified as “Deep Red Zones” with severely constrained water levels.

Whereas, elsewhere in the world of normal everyday life people wake up every morning in cities like LA and NYC and Atlanta and Dallas and go about daily routines, the same ole, same ole, hop into a new EV, motor the freeway to an underground parking garage, up an elevator 2o floors to air-conditioned offices for 8 hours and then reverse the process. These people do not live where climate change devastates ecosystems. Urban ecosystems mainly consist of concrete, asphalt, glass, and a sprinkling of flora. What’s to harm other than people? And the reality of an urban resident visualizing a failing rainforest is difficult. In their mind’s eye, a rainforest landscape is like “painting by numbers,” a one-dimensional piece of fine art that only serves to fool the foolish.

S0uth of the equator indigenous tribal people are desperately urging the national government to declare a climate emergency for survival. Life is brutal. Indigenous tribes need government help just to survive. Villages have no drinking water, food, or medicine due to brutal drought that is drying up rivers that are vital to travel in the rainforest. Drought, excessive heat, has killed thousands upon thousands of fish that they depend upon. Rivers have turned into muddy streams.

Brazil is experiencing a more serious version of the unprecedented drought that nearly dried up Europe’s famed rivers like the Rhine, Po, Loire, and Danube in the summer of 2022, demonstrating the overarching reach of this new more pronounced cycle of global warming that’s haunting the planet.

APIAM, an organization that represents 63 tribes, has reached out to the national government for help. After all, the tribes did not emit tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing global heat that’s killing flora and fauna, as outsiders illegally burn vast swaths of rainforest to grow crops and raise cattle that’s sent north. Frankly, the north/south juxtaposition demonstrates moronic neocolonialism to an extreme.      

“The Rio Negro, Solimoes, Madeira, Jurua, and Purus rivers are drying up at a record pace, and forest fires are destroying the rainforest in new areas in the lower Amazon reaches, APIAM said in a statement.” (Amazon’s Indigenous People Urge Brazil to Declare a National Emergency as Rivers Dry Up, Reuters, October 10, 2023)

“The level of the Rio Negro is dropping by 1 meter (3 feet) every three days, something that has never been recorded before.” (Source: Amazon Drought Cuts River Traffic, Leaves Communities Without Water and Supplies, Mongabay, October 2023)

“The Madeira River to the southwest is no longer navigable in its upper reaches, isolating Indigenous villages and non-Indigenous communities that rely on collecting fruit in the rainforest but cannot move their produce out… the smoke from forest fires is worse than ever, aggravating the climate crisis and affecting the health of the elderly and children. It is not just the El Nino current. Deforestation continues with the fires… The agricultural advance does not stop. They are destroying everything, as if they do not see what is happening to nature,” Ibid. In Amazonas state, nearly 7,000 fires were reported in September alone, the second-highest figure for the month since satellite monitoring began in 1998.

It’s not just indigenous tribes that suffer. Big ag companies Cargill, Bunge, and Amaggi are reducing loads of grains on river barges as a precaution as several got stuck in mud. And the shipping logistics group Moller-Maersk warned customers that navigation to Manaus, the largest Amazonian city, population 2 million, is not possible. Maersk said in a separate statement that severe drought has hit 60 of the 62 municipalities in Amazonas state, temporarily suspending cabotage service to and from Manaus.

“Communities dependent on the Amazon rainforest’s waterways are stranded without supply of fuel, food, or filtered water. Dozens of river dolphins perished and washed up on shore. And thousands of lifeless fish float on the water’s surface. These are just the first grim visions of extreme drought sweeping across Brazil’s Amazon. The historically low water levels have affected hundreds of thousands of people and wildlife and, with experts predicting the drought could last until early 2024, the problems stand to intensify.” (‘Without Water, there is no Life’: Drought in Brazil’s Amazon is Sharpening Fears for the Future, AP News, October 8, 2023)

“Our results show that overall, the Amazon Basin is becoming almost neutral in terms of carbon balance because deforestation, degradation, and the impacts of warming, frequent droughts, and fires over the past two decades release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.” (NASA).

Yet all of humanity depends upon the wonders of the rainforest to absorb and store carbon and release refreshing oxygen as well as its powerful hydrology system, forming clouds and rain that travel as far away as the cornfields of Iowa. But the rainforest is stunted and beaten down onto her knees. This radical, abrupt change of the rainforest clashes with everything that Paris ’15 stands for. Global warming has become public enemy number one.

Will COP28/Dubai, the big UN climate conference of nations coming up soon, do something constructive that helps the once-spectacular Amazon rainforest, or will it continue the well-worn COP tradition of all-talk, no walk?

And when is it too late? Nobody knows. It depends upon whether humans can exist in a sterilized world without nature’s ecosystems for support. The first ever apocalyptic science fiction to depict a sterilized world: The Last Man (1805) by Jean-Baptiste Francois Xavier Cousin de Grainville is more relevant than ever before, 218 years later.

“In the magic mirrors thou beholdest around, the last man will stand revealed to thy sight. There, as on a stage, where the actors represent heroes who are no more, thou shalt hear him converse with the most illustrious personages of the last ages of the world, read in his soul his most secret thoughts and be the witness and judge of his last actions.” (from chapter 1 – The Last Man)

Robert Hunziker is a journalist from Los Angeles

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