Deforestation, drought push Amazon toward destruction by fire

15 April 2014

Deforestation in the Amazon is increasing the region’s vulnerability to droughts and fires, pushing it toward a “tipping point” that could cause rapid, large-scale destruction during dry years, according to a study published Monday.

It's only in the past couple of decades that fire has even been recognized as a major disturbance in Amazon forest.

The eight-year study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the largest, longest-running experiment investigating the effects of fire on tropical forests. It is also the first to show how fire and drought could lead to significant forest die-back in the Amazon, said Jennifer Balch, an assistant professor of geography at Penn State University who co-led the study.

"It's only in the past couple of decades that fire has even been recognized as a major disturbance in Amazon forest," Balch said. "Fire scientists are catching up with a phenomenon that's happening so quickly as a result of frontier expansion and land use changes."

Large areas of tropical forest, particularly in the southeastern Amazon, are being logged and cleared for crops. Such practices thin the forest canopy, promote growth of invasive, quick-burning grasses and cause warmer air to move in from cleared lands, drying the forest floor during times of little rain, according to the study.

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