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Old 08-23-2019, 11:44 AM
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Say Amazon rainforest completely burns away, do we suffocate?


With the recent rampant burning of rainforest in Brazil, and the Amazon rainforest being called by media "the lungs of the planet," I wanted to ask if things went to their unchecked conclusion - say the Brazilian rainforest is all gone and wiped out one day; does the entire rest of the planet begin to experience a reduction of O2 in the air, so much so that we all start to get some oxygen-deprivation symptoms?
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Old 08-23-2019, 11:57 AM
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That's what they're called. It's brilliant marketing, but it doesn't mean it's true.

While the forests and rainforests of the world provide a non-insignificant amount of oxygen to the atmosphere, most of it (70%) comes from marine plants: phytoplankton, kelp, and algal plankton.
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Old 08-23-2019, 12:17 PM
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nm

Last edited by Inigo Montoya; 08-23-2019 at 12:18 PM. Reason: No yarns in GQ. Too bad, it was a good one.
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Old 08-23-2019, 01:15 PM
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“Lungs of the planet” is a metaphor. It’s a media-savvy metaphor, but that doesn’t make it a bad metaphor.

I guess it would be more accurate if one said “The Amazon rainforest constitutes one important lobe of the planet’s lungs, while most of the other lobes are under water.”

That’s a little more accurate but a lot less catchy. Still, no metaphor is perfectly accurate; any perfectly accurate metaphor is a literally true description and thus isn’t a metaphor in the first place.

Last edited by EdelweissPirate; 08-23-2019 at 01:18 PM. Reason: Inadequate editing prior to posting
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Old 08-23-2019, 01:36 PM
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Lungs absorb oxygen, not produce it. Calling the Amazon Rain Forest the Lungs of the Planet is like calling like the Great Lakes the Heart of the Planet. You know because of all the water going in and of the Great Lakes, just like blood goes in and out of a heart.
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Old 08-23-2019, 01:54 PM
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20% of the world's oxygen comes from the Amazon rainforest. That's still pretty significant.
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Old 08-23-2019, 02:00 PM
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20% of the world's oxygen comes from the Amazon rainforest. That's still pretty significant.
Right, that's what I meant. If the oxygen in an enclosed room were reduced by 20%, people would be suffering some ill effects. I was wondering if that applied on a planet-wide scale.
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Old 08-23-2019, 02:05 PM
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Lungs absorb oxygen, not produce it.
From the body's perspective, lungs get rid of CO2 and make O2 available. The lung does for the body what forests do for the planet.
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Old 08-23-2019, 02:59 PM
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Amazon rain forest - lungs of the planet

Great lakes - heart of the planet
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Columbus, OH - the armpit of the planet
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Old 08-23-2019, 03:17 PM
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Right, that's what I meant. If the oxygen in an enclosed room were reduced by 20%, people would be suffering some ill effects. I was wondering if that applied on a planet-wide scale.
Pessimist: Numbers are numbers. When we lose oxygen-generating capacity, oxygen-breathing things start to die until supply and demand balance out. There are no magic oxygen reserves waiting to be triggered. There are a whole lot of greenhouse gas reservoirs waiting to be triggered.

Optimistic case: All the extra CO2 might stimulate more plant growth elsewhere, making up the O2 balance.

Realistic case: We're dicking around with complex systems that we don't fully understand, and it's best not to. The earth may eventually heal itself, but likely not in human timescales.
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Old 08-23-2019, 07:01 PM
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Right, that's what I meant. If the oxygen in an enclosed room were reduced by 20%, people would be suffering some ill effects. I was wondering if that applied on a planet-wide scale.
Depends on where the room is.

This calculator says that air pressure is 80% of sea level at about 6500ft elevation.

So, we'd definitely notice the difference, but the vast majority of people at sea level would probably not suffer ill effects. People with compromised lungs, or who already live at substantial altitude, might be in trouble.

We probably wouldn't be setting any new athletic records for a while either.
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Old 08-24-2019, 07:50 AM
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From the BBC:

Many claim on social media that the Amazon produces about 20% of the world's oxygen. It's widely quoted - by campaign groups and well-known figures, including Emmanuel Macron and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.

But academics say this is a very common misconception, and that the figure is less than 10%.

Oxygen is released by plants during the process of photosynthesis, where sunlight and carbon dioxide are converted into energy in the form of carbohydrates.

A large proportion of the world's oxygen is produced by plankton, explains Professor Malhi. He says of the oxygen produced by land-based plants, about 16% comes from the Amazon.

But this isn't the whole story. In the long run, the Amazon absorbs about the same amount of oxygen as it produces, effectively making the total produced net zero.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49450925

Professor Jon Lloyd from Imperial College London says although the Amazon produces a lot of oxygen during the day through photosynthesis, it absorbs about half of it back through the process of respiration to grow. Further oxygen is used up by the forest's soil, animals and microbes.

Last edited by DaveRaver; 08-24-2019 at 07:51 AM. Reason: Added URL
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Old 08-24-2019, 08:26 AM
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The plants which provide the oxygen that animals (or fires) need are the same ones which provide the food that animals (or fires) need.
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Old 08-24-2019, 08:50 AM
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The plants which provide the oxygen that animals (or fires) need are the same ones which provide the food that animals (or fires) need.
Which means the animals in the Amazon rainforest will die out along with the trees. Therefore both the production and the consumption of oxygen will decrease. The world's oxygen level will not change much.
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Old 08-24-2019, 08:54 AM
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And the Amazon forest is not as old as first thought. Certainly not pre historic. There are cities and civilisations underneath.

The earth functioned very well before the Amazon forests were firmed.
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Old 08-24-2019, 09:35 AM
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That just means that there are some portions that are (relatively) new growth. Most likely, when those civilizations were thriving, they were surrounded by jungle, and were built on the site of what had been jungle before the city-builders cleared it.
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Old 08-24-2019, 11:43 AM
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Which means the animals in the Amazon rainforest will die out along with the trees. Therefore both the production and the consumption of oxygen will decrease. The world's oxygen level will not change much.
The reason people are burning the Amazon rainforest is not to produce barren earth; it is to create farms growing soybeans, etc. So you need to compare oxygen production and usage of rainforests vs that of modern agriculture.
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Old 08-24-2019, 12:14 PM
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say the Brazilian rainforest is all gone and wiped out one day; does the entire rest of the planet begin to experience a reduction of O2 in the air, so much so that we all start to get some oxygen-deprivation symptoms?
http://www.yadvindermalhi.org/blog/d...-of-our-oxygen

Quote:
So, in all practical terms, the net contribution of the Amazon ECOSYSTEM (not just the plants alone) to the world's oxygen is effectively zero. The same is pretty much true of any ecosystem on Earth, at least on the timescales that are relevant to humans (less than millions of years)
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Old 08-24-2019, 12:39 PM
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20% of the world's oxygen comes from the Amazon rainforest. That's still pretty significant.
I'm not sure if it's true; but I think a better way to express this statement would be: "The total carbon sequestered as biomass in the Amazon rainforest would be enough to convert 20% of the atmosphere's oxygen into carbon dioxide".
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Old 08-24-2019, 02:50 PM
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Or in other words, if all of the rainforest burned at once, the oxygen content in the atmosphere would suddenly jump downwards by 20%, and then (if all else remained equal) it would remain at that new, lower number.

Of course, all else wouldn't remain equal, but the changes would be unpredictable. Most living things could survive the lower oxygen levels, but that'd come with a corresponding increase in carbon dioxide, and the impact of that would be huge. In addition to the considerable greenhouse effect, that level would be more than enough to poison a great many animals, us included.
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Old 08-24-2019, 03:31 PM
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The reason people are burning the Amazon rainforest is not to produce barren earth; it is to create farms growing soybeans, etc. So you need to compare oxygen production and usage of rainforests vs that of modern agriculture.
Except that the land that is uncovered is not very good farmland. All the value of the nutrients went up in smoke with the trees and plants. You can only get a few years out of it before you have to go burn down some more forest, and leave empty wasteland in your wake.
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Old 08-24-2019, 05:18 PM
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Except that the land that is uncovered is not very good farmland. All the value of the nutrients went up in smoke with the trees and plants. You can only get a few years out of it before you have to go burn down some more forest, and leave empty wasteland in your wake.
I have seen this several times. I do have to ask - can farmland not be remediated? We have farmland in the USA that has been in continuous use for several hundred years now. It hasn't "run out" of nutrients - various fertilizers can, as I understand it, add the minerals and nitrates that get depleted with each years' crops.
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Old 08-24-2019, 05:31 PM
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I have seen this several times. I do have to ask - can farmland not be remediated? We have farmland in the USA that has been in continuous use for several hundred years now. It hasn't "run out" of nutrients - various fertilizers can, as I understand it, add the minerals and nitrates that get depleted with each years' crops.
The land in the US has soil that sometimes goes down for hundreds of feet. We lose several inches a year, but it still can last for hundreds of years.

The land under a rain forest is not so deep. The soil is not as well established, it is less rich in nutrients to start with, and will easily erode.

You *could* cultivate the fields more carefully and get them to last much longer or even indefinitely, but that is a more expensive proposition than just burning down another few hundred acres of rain forest when your current fields die out.

In the US, we took grasslands, and then we started growing grass on them. That's all most of our crops are is modified grass. Going from rain forest to farm is a bit more of a shock to the system.

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Old 08-24-2019, 05:33 PM
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I have seen this several times. I do have to ask - can farmland not be remediated? We have farmland in the USA that has been in continuous use for several hundred years now. It hasn't "run out" of nutrients - various fertilizers can, as I understand it, add the minerals and nitrates that get depleted with each years' crops.
To an extent, but only to an extent.

And yes, it did run out for a while, even in parts the USA. The historical record is pretty clear that not all land is suitable as farmland, even if some of that land can be used as such for temporary periods. And even when there is good farmland, profitable crops and sustainable crops are not always the same thing.
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Old 08-24-2019, 05:45 PM
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Solutions to this problem...

1. Get people to stop burning/cutting the amazon rain forest down.

2. Everyone, everywhere should plant a tree.
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Old 08-24-2019, 05:47 PM
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Not that everyone planting a tree would be a bad thing, but you'd need a heck of a lot more than one tree per person.
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Old 08-24-2019, 05:50 PM
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Solutions to this problem...

1. Get people to stop burning/cutting the amazon rain forest down.

2. Everyone, everywhere should plant a tree.
The problem is is that the Amazon resides in countries that we cannot just make do what we want. They aren't burning it for fun, they are burning it in order to grow food and cash crops.

And everyone needs to plant more than just one tree. The emerald ash borer alone killed off about as many trees as there are people in the US.
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Old 08-24-2019, 06:16 PM
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And in Africa and Southeast Asia, forests are being clear-cut or burned for rubber and palm oil plantations.

If the Amazon was totally burned, we'd find some tribes and civilizations that we weren't previously aware of (with interesting social and medical consequences) but honestly, it would produce so much smoke, the sun would be blotted out before we all died from anoxia.

On a lighter note, all hail Plankton!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPFO4pcLDPI
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Old 08-26-2019, 09:51 AM
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Couple of factual questions about current Amazon fires


From Forbes: Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It's The "Lungs Of The World," Is Wrong

I'm interested in 2 factual claims that this guy makes.
  1. The claim that the Amazon is "the lungs of the world" is extremely overstated, because while the Amazon produces an enormous amount of oxygen, it also uses an enormous amount, and the net impact is insignificant.
  2. The level of fires currently burning in the Amazon is not significantly higher than the recent average levels.
What's the Straight Dope on these claims?
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Old 08-26-2019, 10:48 AM
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Phytoplankton contribute 50-70%, and we are screwing that up.
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Old 08-26-2019, 11:03 AM
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For the first claim, I can at least agree that most of Earth's oxygen comes from phytoplankton, not trees. Trees are, roughly speaking, a neat way to temporarily store carbon. Trees have a respiration cycle, the same as we do - they inhale carbon dioxide during the day to help with photosynthesis, and exhale carbon dioxide at night. This isn't a 1:1 ratio, though; a lot of carbon is sequestered as the tree grows.

Of course, we're not just talking about trees when we talk about the Amazon rainforest. There's a whole lot of other things going on that can negate the oxygen surplus. That said, losing the Amazon rainforest would still have a huge impact on the climate and carbon dioxide levels world-wide.

For the second claim: yes and no.
The National Institute for Space Research (this is the Brazil agency) says that there is an 83% increase in the number of fires.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (in the US) says that the overall fire activity in the Amazon basin is slightly below average this year.

The answer depends on the scope: do you take the Amazon as a whole, which is more than just what is contained in Brazil? Or do you look just at Brazil, and wonder what could cause an 83% uptick?
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Old 08-26-2019, 11:08 AM
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Amazon rainforest contributes about 5.5% of world oxygen.

Depends what you mean by recent. This year's fires are alot more than last year's but well below what they were 10-15 years ago.
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Old 08-26-2019, 11:26 AM
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defore...zon_rainforest
Quote:
Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest continued to accelerate in the early 2000s, reaching an annual rate of 27,423 km˛ of forest loss in the year 2004.
Quote:
Between August 2017 and July 2018, 7,900 square kilometres (3,100 sq mi) were deforested in Brazil – a 13.7% rise over the previous year and the largest area cleared since 2008. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest rose more than 88% in June 2019 compared with the same month in 2018.
Current annual rates are less than a half of what existed during the late 70's through the early 21st century. I do not know what percentage being burned is virgin rain forest and how much is previously burned scrub brush and grasslands.
Can we blame the Trump -China tariff tiff for some of this? (same cite)
Quote:
Until 2006, a major driver of forest loss in the Amazon was the cultivation of soy, mainly for export and production of biodiesel and animal feed; as soybean prices have risen, soy farmers pushed northwards into forested areas of the Amazon.
Maybe
Quote:
It seems China either has enough soybeans or has deserted its U.S. clients in favor of Brazil.
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Old 08-26-2019, 11:27 AM
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For #1 it really depends on how you want to play the numbers.

The Amazon is historically been a good carbon sink, but due to reduced area that is trending to not be true. But historically the claims that:

Quote:
“The Amazon is often referred to as Earth’s ‘lungs,’ because its vast forests release oxygen and store carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming"
So it is partially true, mostly due to tree growth and sequestration.

While the data isn't perfect for oxygen production outside of the local area, the Amazon is about a wash, and the Boreal forests of the North are far more significant if you don't define "sharing" as sharing to other geographic areas of the world.

Consider that in per 100 acres of 100% forest in Minneapolis offsets oxygen consumption of 19 people per year; where that same 100 acres in Calgary would offset 28 people. As noted Cyanobacteria and Plankton produce more than 2/3 of the worlds O2.

This this claim is false:
Quote:
"The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world's oxygen"
Net O2 is when carbon is being locked away in a carbon pool that turns over very slowly, which doesn't happen much in the Amazon. That said; we have evidence that deforestation is creating more drought which in turn causes more fires and more deforestation in the Amazon. There are many reasons to help Brazilians and other South Americans protect the rain forest but yes this 20% number is a very pervasive and incorrect urban legend.

Unfortunately as pointed out in the article you posted using this type of urban myth does pose some barriers to reaching local ranchers and residents in what should be shared goals.

Last edited by rat avatar; 08-26-2019 at 11:29 AM.
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Old 08-26-2019, 03:52 PM
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[Moderating]

We just had a thread on this (it's still on the front page, started by Velocity), but a lot has been posted to this one, too (started by Fotheringay-Phipps), so I'll just merge them.
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Old 08-26-2019, 04:26 PM
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I can't believe that so much wrong information has been posted in this thread.
Ask yourself- if we burnt the entire Amazon rain forest, how much oxygen would disappear from the atmosphere?
20%? No.
The answer is much less than 1%.
Most of the oxygen in our atmosphere is fossil oxygen. It was created long ago by photosynthetic organisms that are long dead and buried; the reduced carbon that this process created is buried deep underground, some as coal and oil, but most in the form of kerogen distributed in rocks. Even if you combusted the entire living biosphere of Earth the atmosphere would only lose a percent or two of oxygen partial pressure.

Sure, with a dead (burnt) biosphere, the oxygen constituent of the atmosphere would go down slowly, as the dead rocks of the atmosphere absorb it; but this would take hundreds of thousands of years.This is because the Earth's crust and ocean is already pretty well oxygenated, so it can't absorb much more without some sort of geological turnover.

This is supposed to be the Straight Dope, people - try to get it right!
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Old 08-26-2019, 04:43 PM
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I meant to say
...Sure, with a dead (burnt) biosphere, the oxygen constituent of the atmosphere would go down slowly, as the dead rocks of the crust absorb it...

This is a tricky subject, and even now the exact figures are somewhat vague, but the oxygen level in our atmosphere was set long ago, and is much, much larger than the mass of the biosphere. Lots of oxygen has been created in the past, and lots of this oxygen is incorporated into sedimentary rocks; but a lot of carbon has also been incorporated into the crust too. Some of this carbon is released by volcanoes, but the current oxygen level is more-or-less independent of current-day oxygen production.
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Old 08-27-2019, 03:11 PM
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20% of the world's oxygen comes from the Amazon rainforest. That's still pretty significant.
Great quote, pity it's false.

The african rainforest is twice as large, and the oceans contribute 5-7 times more oxygen that the amazon rainforest.


The real concern is irretrievable loss of biodiversity. There are, literally, thousands of species in the Amazonian forests that occur NO_WHERE else in the world, not even in sanctuaries/zoos. A great many not even described yet, never mind studied in detail. And once lost, they will of course be irreplaceable.
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Old 08-27-2019, 05:30 PM
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The real concern is irretrievable loss of biodiversity. There are, literally, thousands of species in the Amazonian forests that occur NO_WHERE else in the world, not even in sanctuaries/zoos. A great many not even described yet, never mind studied in detail. And once lost, they will of course be irreplaceable.
But our lives and future humans lives will go on. The flaw here is that Brazil is being paid what, a few tens of millions, not to use that land? It seems completely reasonable for them to convert their land into more economically useful things. Most of the value of these species is to tourists and scientists - and that may not justify such a colossal amount of land.

Apparently the rainforest is quite fragile and destroying more than 20 percent of it is as bad as destroying it all.

So might as well destroy it all....
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Old 08-27-2019, 06:25 PM
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Most of the value of those species is to those species.
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Old 08-27-2019, 07:23 PM
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Most of the value of those species is to those species.
So to hell with them. Em… Aren't most new drugs derived from plant species?
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Old 08-27-2019, 07:58 PM
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If the entire Amazon Rainforest burned down in let's say a week, wouldn't any loss of oxygen, if it caused some sudden change just resolve itself via some "local event" if a bunch of organisms just dropped dead and then some sort of global correction or equilibrium take place?

I'm not saying that would be a good outcome I'm just wondering if it happened really suddenly.
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Old 08-27-2019, 08:01 PM
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Yes, the environment would change in response and reach some new equilibrium, but the change in response wouldn't just be a "local event", and the new equilibrium would probably be unfavorable to a lot of species including us.
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Old 08-27-2019, 09:32 PM
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The african rainforest is twice as large,
The Amazon has by far the largest area of tropical moist forest in the World. Africa has the smallest area of tropical moist forest of the main regions (America, Africa, and Southeast Asia/New Guinea).
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Old 08-28-2019, 03:29 AM
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Just to reinforce my earlier point, the total mass of the biosphere is about 4 exagrams (4000 petagrams, 4 million teragrams, 4 trillion tonnes etc). This includes soil bacteria and so on.
The total mass of the oxygen in the air is 1200 exagrams, 1.2 quadrillion tonnes. Even if the biosphere were made of pure carbon, we would only remove about a third of a percent of the oxygen in the air by burning it all.

Of course burning all that carbon would raise the level of greenhouse gases beyond the danger level, but we wouldn't care, since we would be part of the carbonised biosphere anyway.
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