||June 21, 2001
GSA Release No. 01-20
Amazon Rainforest Could be Unsustainable Within A Decade
ABINGTON, Pa. -- Talk of saving the rainforests is as burned into the collective minds of people as refrains to "Save the Whales" and to "Make Love, Not War." Without action, however, the day when there are no tropical rainforests to talk about could come a lot sooner than people think, according to a Penn State Abington researcher.
James (Bud) Alcock, professor of environmental sciences, has developed a mathematical model to study the effect of human-driven deforestation. Current rates of about one percent per year in the Amazon River Basin rainforest in Brazil could push the rainforests past the point where they can sustain themselves a lot sooner than many people think. The other key tropical rainforests are in the Congo River Basin in Africa and Southeast Asia.
To use the two-million-square-mile Amazon River Basin as an example, Alcock said his model shows that if there's no immediate and aggressive action to change current agricultural, mining and logging practices, the rainforest could pass "the point of no return" in 10 to 15 years. When all is said and done, the model indicates that the rainforest could essentially disappear within 40 to 50 years. That's a far cry from the common belief among researchers that the forest is still 75 to 100 years away from total deterioration, if current patterns prevail, Alcock said.
Alcock will present his findings at a joint conference of the Geology Society of America and the Geology Society of London titled, "Earth System Processes," slated from June 24 to 28 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He researched this timely topic to help students and others understand the concept of feedback--exemplified by precipitation and evapotranspiration in the rainforest. He hopes to advance and complement these studies by collaborating and/or conducting fieldwork in the Amazon.
"Because of the way tropical rainforests work, they are dependent on trees to return water to the air," Alcock said, noting that the sheer size of the Amazon River Basin has already been reduced by about 25 percent. "This interdependence of climate and forest means risks to the forests are much closer at hand than what we might expect, and we're doing very little because of the priorities of Brazil and The Congo. It's a very difficult problem because of several pressures. For example, you can't say, 'leave the rainforests alone' when people are living in poverty."
Rainforests are dependent on high levels of precipitation brought on by daily rain, and a healthy forest holds onto the rain and returns it to the atmosphere so it can be recycled -- a process called evapotranspiration--which Alcock refers to above. Without a healthy base of vegetation, water runoff occurs at a higher rate, and it creates the potential for a highly unstable rainforest system.
There are those who espouse preserving small portions of the rainforest, but Alcock said damage to the overall system would probably limit the rain necessary to do that. Less rain could also mean more forest fires, further threatening the balance of the rainforest.
While others have studied the effect of tropical rainforest deforestation on regional and global climates, Alcock said his study differs because it focuses on the local impact of the issues. In the Amazon River Basin, for example, loss of the forest would likely cause the extinction of many species of animals that thrive in such an environment, he said.
"There are already a large number of species that are endangered, because the forest itself is endangered," Alcock said. "We might be able to keep a few animals at the zoos, but we'd surely lose a lot of amphibians, reptiles, and insects. We couldn't take them all."
During the Earth System Processes meeting, June 25-28, contact the GSA/GSL Newsroom at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for assistance and to arrange for interviews: +44 (0) 131 519 4134
Ted Nield, GSL Science and Communications Officer
Ann Cairns, GSA Director of Communications
The abstract for this presentation is available at: http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2001ESP/finalprogram/abstract_6535.htm
Post-meeting contact information:
Jim (Bud) Alcock
Penn State Abington College
1600 Woodland Rd.
Abington, PA 19001
Manager of Public Information
Penn State University/Philadelphia
+01 610 648 3276
Geological Society of London
+44 (0) 20 7434 9944
Geological Society of America
+01 303 447 2020 ext. 1156
To view other Earth System Processes press releases, see