Photo credit: Guido van der Werf [Image © Science/AAAS]
The last decade has been a tumultuous one for the Amazonian rainforest – the green lung of the planet. On the one side, the hand that wields the ax has been stayed somewhat – with the rates of deforestation last year at their slowest pace in 20 years. On the other, fierce 'once-a-century' droughts have gripped the lush basin – not once, but twice. Some see the lurking shadow of global warming behind such an ill-starred run of searing dry seasons. What is certain is that the planet can ill-afford for this global gobbler of man's CO2 to dry, shrivel and shrink – whether by ax or fire.
But while scientists can't step in to banish these twin threats, they can hold out the promise of foretelling the next gathering drought. That's according to the results of a new study by climate scientists, published in Science today. With such advance warning, those tasked with conserving the Amazon may be able to prevent the droughts worst effects, by putting a damper on their potential for wildfires.
In years when the temperature of the central Pacific rose by a degree Celsius – and those in the Atlantic rose by a quarter of a degree – several months later, wildfires were seen to bloom across South America's rainforests. The researchers were able to produce models that accurately predicted the devastating fires seen in last year's Amazonian dry season.
''We predicted a massive spike in fires in 2010, and it occurred,'' said James Randerson, one of the paper's authors from UCI.
Because there is a reasonable lead-time for their omen-casting, it gives those on the ground a fighting chance to take action. For example, fire-fighting teams can be placed in known flash points; or controlled burning of conflagration-prone areas can be undertaken – hopefully preventing raging wildfires from taking hold across wider swathes later.
''During the 21st century, there are expectations that drought may intensify, and forests may become even more vulnerable. Understanding in advance whether you're going to have an exceptionally bad year will become critically important for managing them,'' said Randerson.
Given the desperate importance of holding onto those parts of the globe – such as the Amazon forests – that absorb much of our rising CO2 emissions, the need for such climate-oracles has never been greater. But with the bones also speaking loudly of a wider, more globally-ominous future, are we actually listening?