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NASA Satellite Images Show Climate Change Accelerates ‘Browning’ of Congo Rainforest

Climate

The Congo—one of the world’s greatest rainforests—is getting steadily less green. The slow change in color during this century, recorded by a series of U.S. satellites, has been matched by a rise in temperature and lower precipitation. And, researchers think, it could reflect a forest’s response to climate change

Scientists from Australia, China, the U.S. and France report in the journal Nature that they examined optical, thermal, microwave and gravity data collected by orbiting sensors between 2000 and 2012.

The new study used satellite data from NASA to track the gradual "browning" of the Congolese rainforest.

They concentrated on intact forested regions during the months of April, May and June each year, which span the peaks of growth and rainfall. They detected an intensification in the forest’s decline. This decline was consistent with lower rainfall, poorer water storage below the canopy and a gradual change in the composition of species.

“It is important to understand these changes because most climate models predict tropical forests may be under stress due to increasing severe water shortages in a warmer and drier twenty-first century climate,” said Liming Zhou, of Albany State University of New York. But other factors could accelerate this “browning” of one of the world’s greatest rainforests.

A team from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium—also known in Belgium’s other language as KU Leuven—predicts in the Journal of Climate that explosive population growth and inefficient agricultural practices are likely to make things a great deal hotter for the region and a great deal worse for the rainforest.

By 2050, according to their computer models, Central Africa will be on average 1.4 degrees Celsius hotter than it is today just because of greenhouse gas emissions. And the steady destruction of the forest will add an extra 0.7 degrees Celsius to that figure.

Temperature increases on such a scale will harm plant and animal species and even bring about some extinction. Where the forests have been cleared, there will be increased levels of evaporation, and consequent rises in temperature.

Across the Atlantic, things also look bleak for the Amazon rainforest. Paulo Brando of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brazil and colleagues from the U.S. report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the piecemeal clearing of the rainforest, along with drought, has begun to create “tinderbox” conditions  and an ever more destructive cycle of burning.

Over the course of eight years, in one of the longest-running experiments of its kind, the researchers burned 50-hectare plots of forest in the south-eastern Amazon, a region vulnerable to climate change. They compared the tree deaths each year to measure the impact of drought on fire intensity.

“Drought causes more intense and widespread fires,” said Dr. Brando. “Four times more adult trees were killed by fire during a drought year, which means that there was also more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, more tree species loss and a greater likelihood of grasses invading the forest.”

This research, too, was backed up by satellite observation. In 2007, a year of drought, fires in south-east Amazonia burned 10 times more forest than in an average year—an area equivalent to a million soccer fields, according to Douglas Morton of the U.S. space agency NASA, a co-author.

Climate change is expected to bring shorter, more intense rainy seasons and longer dry seasons in the region. Michael Coe of Woods Hole Research Center, another author, said “We tend to think only about average conditions, but it is the non-average conditions we have to worry about.”

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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