As fires continue to burn the Amazon rainforest at a record level, many are warning about the devastating effects the blazes can have on the environment, and humans around the globe.
The Amazon, known as “the planet’s lungs,” produces 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen and is a key factor in combating climate change, according to CNN.
Like all plants, the Amazon rainforest is able to release oxygen into the air through the process of photosynthesis, which occurs as plants use sunlight to remove carbon dioxide from the air.
According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Forest Service, the world’s forests are responsible for absorbing 2.4 billion tons of carbon annually, which is about one-third of global fossil fuel emissions. The Amazon, which covers 2.12 million square miles, is responsible for absorbing about one-quarter of that amount, the Huffington Post reported.
Amid the alarm over the devastation, the World Wildlife Fund released a statement about the “vital links between the Amazon rainforest, global warming and you,” pointing out that when forests burn, “tree carbon matter is released in the form of CO2, which pollutes the atmosphere.”
A massive loss of trees would also significantly impact the Amazon’s ability to perform photosynthesis, which would result in an increased level of carbon dioxide in the air.
Organizers with the WWF have said that if the Amazon reaches “a point of no return,” it could begin emitting carbon, “the major driver for global climate change.”
Earlier this month, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) released data that showed a dramatic increase in deforestation, the Associated Press reported.
According to the data, in July alone the forest lost 870 square miles of vegetation, which is between three and five times the amount lost in the same month during the past four years.
There have been 72,843 fires in Brazil this year (with more than half in its Amazon region), and satellite images have spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the county — mostly in the Amazon basin — since Aug. 15, CNN and Reuters previously reported, citing the INPE.
“It is definitely something to be concerned about, especially with more research coming out about reaching a tipping point,” Mikaela Weisse, a manager of Global Forest Watch, told The New York Times, adding that many of the fires currently burning are in areas which had previously been deforested.
“Natural fires are very rare in the Amazon, so all, or almost all, the fires we are seeing are set by humans,” she added.
Environmental activists have been vocal about blaming Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro for the devastation, noting that the surge of fires began when he took office in January, according to Reuters.
Bolsonaro, who famously fired INPE leader Ricardo Galvão after Galvão spoke out about high deforestation rates, has vowed to explore the Amazon’s economic potential and condemned deforestation warnings that could interfere with trade negotiations.
“The vast majority of these fires are human-lit,” Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch, told CNN.
“This year’s fires fit into an established seasonal agricultural pattern,” added CNN meteorologist Haley Brink. “It’s the best time to burn because the vegetation is dry. [Farmers] wait for the dry season and they start burning and clearing the areas so that their cattle can graze. And that’s what we’re suspecting is going on down there.”
An increase in deforestation could also lead to an increased rate of loss. Ecologist Thomas Lovejoy explained to the National Geographic that with the loss of plant life, the area can become drier, which in turn can lead to more deforestation — and more fires.
The WWF also notes that tropical forests “exchange vast amounts of water and energy with the atmosphere and are thought to be important in controlling local and regional climates.”
“Any forest destroyed is a threat to biodiversity and the people who use that biodiversity,” Lovejoy, who is also a National Geographic explorer-at-large, told the outlet.
“It’s a tragedy,” ecologist Adriane Muelbert told the outlet, calling the deforestation “a crime against the planet, and a crime against humankind.