How dangerous is the Amazon rainforest

"Rainforests are more in danger than ever before"

Mr Fischer, at the beginning could you perhaps explain briefly why the rainforest is so important for the world? Which functions does it take on exactly?

Rico Fischer: The tropical forests are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth. Over half of all plant and animal species live in these forests. The rainforests are considered to be the green lungs of the earth because they play a crucial role in the water and carbon cycle. The Amazon rainforest is the largest intact tropical forest with a share of approx. 18 percent of the global forest area.

These forests have so far been a carbon sink, meaning that they store more carbon than they release into the atmosphere. The Amazon rainforest plays an important role in this, as it stores almost 80 billion tons of carbon. However, forest fires cause immense carbon emissions. If these forest areas are not reforested in a timely manner, then these areas lack the potential to bind carbon in the forest in the future. In the next few decades, it could lead to forests turning from a carbon sink to a source with negative consequences for global warming.

Seen from a distance: How big is the destruction caused by the many fires already now?

The rainforests are now even more in danger than ever before, because huge areas are burning in South America. According to satellite analyzes, the forest fires, especially in Brazil, have reached a new high this year - almost 80,000 forest fires broke out in 2019. Compared to last year, 85 percent more fires were detected in the same period. This releases enormous amounts of carbon and threatens many animal and plant species.

Why did so many fires break out at the same time? To what extent are the fires possibly a consequence of climate change?

In the dry season, from May to October, it is more common for forest fires to break out in the Brazilian rainforest. However, a particularly large number of fires can be observed this year. The causes of the forest fires can be varied. The forest fires in the Amazon are often due to the conversion of forest into agricultural land, for example to create new pastureland. In addition, there is a general drought in many areas of the world due to climate change. That can lead to even more forest fires.

What consequences could there be in the worst case if really large parts of the forest burn down?

The fires lead to the destruction of previously intact rainforests and the loss of biodiversity, but also to considerable carbon emissions. This increases the CO2 Concentration in the atmosphere is increasing even faster than before, with consequences for the global climate. The more CO2 is in the atmosphere, the hotter it will be on our earth. It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to meet our climate targets.

Couldn't the fires be fought from the air, for example, as is normal in other countries?

Yes, you could, and that's how it is practiced. However, the Amazon is very large, larger than the whole of the EU. Extinguishing the numerous fires is a logistical challenge. Often there is a lack of the necessary infrastructure and equipment. In addition, access to the fires is very difficult. In addition, there is the current dry season, which is fueling the spread of the forest fires even further. The most important goal should therefore be to prevent further fires from starting and to extinguish existing fires - if possible with international help.

Can the affected areas ever fully recover?

The regeneration of a burned forest area can take a very long time. A large, fully grown tree in the rainforest is often over 50 to 100 years old. For a whole piece of forest to regenerate, more than 100 years must be expected. This regeneration phase can be significantly extended due to higher temperatures and less precipitation as a result of climate change. Even afforestation can hardly restore the full functionality of a rainforest with its hundreds of tree species.

Can the people of Europe do something?

Donations to fight forest fires and support reforestation projects are a quick help.

What can you learn for the future? Are there any options for prevention?

Most forest fires are man-made because more agricultural land is required. One should reduce the pressure on agriculture in Brazil. The farmers in Brazil also produce products for the German market (e.g. soy). Foregoing such products could reduce the demand for new agricultural land, but it would also have economic consequences for Brazil. This is a complex process with no easy solutions.

In Germany, too, there is talk of forest dieback again. Why is the topic topical again?

The months of droughts last year and this year lead to increased tree death. The trees that are under stress often no longer have the energy to produce enough resin. This makes it easier for bark beetles to attack the trees. Spruce trees in particular are affected by the bark beetle infestation. Since there are often only a few tree species in the German forest, this forest is particularly susceptible to such pests. A mixed forest could cope better with such events.

Are there regional differences and “hotspots” where the new problems are particularly acute?

The forest ecosystem reacts very slowly to such droughts, sometimes with a delay of six months. For the most part, we're only seeing the aftermath of last year's drought this year. The actual extent of the drought in 2018/2019 cannot yet be fully recognized.

Thank you very much for talking to us, Mr Fischer.