Gone from the Amazon?

ENVIRONMENT

Deforestation adds up. New research finds that the Amazon region could lose more than half of its tree species by the year 2050. (Scientific American)

Use our resources to learn more about human impact in the Amazon.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit, including a link to today’s beautiful hi-resolution maps of human impact and biodiversity in the Amazon.

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Deforestation is threatening more than half of tree species in the Amazon, including keystone species such as the Brazil nut, cacao, and açai palm.
Photograph by James P. Blair, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

 

  • How was the research conducted?
    • More than 155 researchers from 21 nations compared data on 1,500 forest plots across the Amazon Basin and Guiana Shield. Each plot was about two acres. Despite the huge survey area, researchers admit it’s still “a truly tiny fraction of the total area” of the Amazon.
    • On each plot studied, researchers conducted a species inventory of trees and shrubs. The inventory included measuring the diameter of trunks and branches; measuring the height of the plot’s canopy; and collecting leaves, flowers, fruit, and nuts.

 

  • How was the research evaluated—in other words, how did researchers assess that so many species may be threatened?
    • Researchers created two models: a “business as usual” (BAU) model and a conservation model.
      • The BAU scenario is based on deforestation rates matching what we’ve seen in recent years. Under the BAU model, the Amazon would lose about 40% of its forests by 2050.
      • The conservation scenario predicts improved forest governance. Under this model, the Amazon would lose about 21% of its forests.
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This graphic shows the estimated population declines and threat status of Amazonian tree species under historical deforestation and two projected deforestation scenarios. The first column is the historic, documented status of forest loss in the Amazon. The second column uses the new research in a “business as usual” (BAU) model. The last column uses the new research in a model of greater conservation and forest governance.
Image by Hans ter Steege et al., “Estimating the global conservation status of more than 15,000 Amazonian tree species,” Science Advances. CC-BY-NC-4.0

 

  • What forces are driving deforestation in the Amazon? Use this guide for some help.
    • Logging interests cut down rain forest trees for timber used in flooring, furniture, and other items.
    • Power plants and other industries cut and burn trees to generate electricity.
    • The paper industry turns huge tracts of rain forest trees into pulp.
    • The cattle industry uses slash-and-burn techniques to clear ranch land.
    • Agricultural interests, particularly the soy industry, clear forests for cropland.
    • Subsistence farmers slash-and-burn rain forest for firewood and to make room for crops and grazing lands.
    • Mining operations clear forest to build roads and dig mines.
    • Governments and industry clear-cut forests to make way for service and transit roads.
    • Hydroelectric projects flood acres of rain forest.
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Zoom, zoom, zoom in on this beautiful map from the October issue of National Geographic magazine. Mining, logging, ranching, agriculture, and oil and gas extraction have put unsustainable pressure on the delicate rain forests of the Amazon Basin.
Map by National Geographic

 

  • Researchers say “the loss of so many trees would obviously have a cascading effect on the Amazon’s biodiversity.” Why?
    • Deforestation is habitat loss for much of the Amazon’s dazzling diversity of species. “Extinction is not just one species. Many species will be affected. For large carnivores and primates, deforestation coupled with immense habitat fragmentation will have a much more immediate effect. Hunting in fragments may also decrease other mammals and affect the dispersal of many other species.”
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Zoom, zoom, zoom in on this beautiful map from the October issue of National Geographic magazine. The heart of the Amazon is its rivers and forests, home to thousands of plant and animal species. Zoom in to see some of the dazzling wildlife in these dwindling ecosystems.
Map by National Geographic

 

  • Despite the dire predictions of the “business as usual” model, the Scientific American blog says the new study offers reasons for hope. Why?
    • The lead author of the study admits:  “I had thought the situation was much worse. If you are in the ‘arc of deforestation,’ it seems as if all is lost. But . . . [t]he good news is that over 80% of the Amazon forest is not deforested and that is an immense amount of forest . . . The message that we can make a difference should be embraced.”

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Scientific American: Amazon Trees Face Extinction Crisis, but There’s Hope

Nat Geo: Amazonia: The Human Impact

Nat Geo: Amazonia: The Human Impact hi-res map

Nat Geo: Rain Forest Threats

Nat Geo: Amazonia: Vital and Fragile hi-res map

Nat Geo: Biodiversity in the Amazon MapMaker Interactive map

Nat Geo: Amazonia Under Threat interactive website

(extra credit!) Science Advances: Estimating the global conservation status of more than 15,000 Amazonian tree species

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