Burning it down

By Leila S. Lemos, PhD Candidate in Wildlife Sciences, Fisheries and Wildlife Department, OSU

As you might know, the GEMM Lab (Geospatial Ecology of MARINE Megafauna Laboratory) researches the marine environment, but today I am going to leave the marine ecosystem aside and I will discuss the Amazon biome. As a Brazilian, I cannot think of anything else to talk about this week than the terrifying fire that is burning down the Amazon forest in this exact minute.

For some context, the Amazon biome is known as the biome with the highest biodiversity in the world (ICMBio, 2019). It is the largest biome in Brazil, accounting for ~49% of the Brazilian territory. This biome houses the biggest tropical forest and hydrographic basin in the world. The Amazon forest also extends through eight other countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guiana, French Guiana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. To date, at least 40,000 plant species, 427 mammals, 1,300 birds, 378 reptiles, more than 400 amphibians, around 3,000 freshwater fishes, and around 100,000 invertebrate species have been described by scientists in the Amazon, comprising more than 1/3 of all fauna species on the planet (Da Silva et al. 2005, Lewinsohn and Prado 2005). And, these numbers are likely to increase; According to Patterson (2000), one new genus and eight new species of Neotropical mammals are discovered each year in the region.

I feel very connected to the Amazon as I worked as an environmental consultant and field coordinator in 2014 and 2015 (Figs. 1 and 2) along the Madeira river (or “Wood” river) in Rondonia, Brazil (Fig. 3). I monitored Amazon river dolphins (Inia geoffrensis; Fig. 4), a species considered endangered by the IUCN Red List in 2018 (Da Silva et al. 2018). The Madeira river originates in Bolivia and flows into the great Amazon river, comprising one of its main tributaries (Fig. 3).

Figure 1: Me, working along the Madeira river, Rondonia, Brazil, in 2015.
Source: Laura K. Honda, 2015.
Figure 2: Me, helping to rescue a sloth from the Madeira river, Rondonia, Brazil, in 2014.
Source: Roberta Lanziani, 2014.
Figure 3: The Amazon hydrographic basin, with the Madeira river highlighted.
Source: Wikipedia, 2019.
Figure 4: Amazon river dolphins (I. geoffrensis) along the Madeira river, Rondonia, Brazil.
Source: Leila S. Lemos, 2014; 2015.

Here is also a video where you can see some Amazon river dolphins along the Madeira river:

Source: Leila S. Lemos, 2014; 2015.

In addition to the dolphins, I witnessed the presence of many other fauna specimens like birds (including macaws and parrots), monkeys, alligators and sloths (Fig. 5). The biodiversity of the Amazon is unquestionable.

Figure 5: Macaws (Ara chloropterus), parrots (Amazona sp.) and the Guariba monkey or brown howler (Allouatta guariba) along the Madeira river, Rondonia, Brazil.
Source: Leila S. Lemos

Other than its great biodiversity, the Amazon is known as the “lungs of the Earth”, which is an erroneous statement since plants consume as much oxygen as they produce (Malhi et al. 2008, Malhi 2019). But still, the Amazon forest is responsible for 16% of the oxygen produced by photosynthesis on land and 9% of the oxygen on the global scale (Fig. 6). This seems a small percentage, but it is still substantial, especially because the plants use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which accounts for a 10% reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Thus, imagine if there was no Amazon rainforest. The rise in carbon dioxide would be enormous and have serious implications on the global climate, surpassing safe temperature boundaries for many regions.

Figure 6: Total photosynthesis of each major land biome. This value is multiplied by 2.67 to convert to total oxygen production. Hence total oxygen production by photosynthesis on land is around 330 Pg of oxygen per year. The Amazon (just under half of the tropical forests) is around 16% of this, around 54 Pg of oxygen per year.
Source: Malhi 2019.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not really far from us. Even though deforestation indices have fallen in the last 15 years, fire incidence associated with droughts and carbon emissions have increased (Aragão et al. 2018; Fig. 7).

Figure 7: Linear trends (2003–2015) of annual (a) deforestation rates, and (b) active fires counts in the Brazilian Amazon. Red circles indicate the analyzed drought years by Aragão et al. (2018).
Source: Aragão et al. 2018.

Since August 2019, the Amazon forest has experienced extreme fire outbreaks (Figs. 8 and 9). Around 80,000 fires occurred only in 2019. Despite 2019 not being an extreme drought year, the period of January-August 2019 is characterized by an ~80% increase in fires compared to the previous year (Wagner and Hayes 2019). The intensification of the fires has been linked to the Brazilian President’s incentive to “open the rainforest to development”. Leaving politics aside, the truth is that the majority of these fires have been set by loggers and ranchers seeking to clear land to expand the agro-cattle area (Yeung 2019).

Figure 8: The Amazon in July 28: just clouds; and in August 22: choked with smoke.
Source: NOAA, in: Wagner and Hayes, 2019.
Figure 9: Images showing some of the destruction caused by the fires in the Amazon region in 2019.
Source: Buzz Feed News 2019, Sea Mashable 2019.

Here you can see some videos showing the extension of the problem:

Video 1 – by NBC News:

Video 2 – a drone footage by The Guardian:

I consider myself lucky for the opportunity to have worked in the Amazon rainforest before these chaotic fires have destroyed so much biodiversity. The Amazon is a crucial home for countless animal and plant species, and to ~900,000 indigenous individuals that live in the region. They are all at risk of losing their homes and lives. We are all at risk of global warming.


Aragão LEOC, Anderson LO, Fonseca MG, Rosan TM, Vedovato LB, Wagner FH, Silva CVJ, Silva Junior CHL, Arai E, Aguiar AP, Barlow J, Berenguer E, Deeter MN, Domingues LG, Gatti L, Gloor M, Malhi Y, Marengo JA, Miller JB, Phillips OL, and Saatchi S. 2018. 21stCentury drought-related fires counteract the decline of Amazon deforestation carbon emissions. Nature Communications 9(536):1-12.

Buzz Feed News. 2019. These Heartbreaking Photos Show The Devastation Of The Amazon Fires. Retrieved 1 September 2019 from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/gabrielsanchez/photos-trending-devastation-amazon-wildfire

Da Silva JMC, Rylands AB, and Da Fonseca GAB. 2005. The Fate of the Amazonian Areas of Endemism. Conservation Biology 19(3):689-694.

Da Silva V, Trujillo F, Martin A, Zerbini AN, Crespo E, Aliaga-Rossel E, and Reeves R. 2018. Inia geoffrensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T10831A50358152. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T10831A50358152.en. Downloaded on 27 August 2019.

ICMBio. 2019. Amazônia. Retrieved 26 August 2019 from http://www.icmbio.gov.br/portal/unidades deconservacao/biomas-brasileiros/amazonia

Lewinsohn TM, and Prado PI. 2005. How Many Species Are There in Brazil? Conservation Biology 19(3):619.

Malhi Y. 2019. does the amazon provide 20% of our oxygen? Travels in ecosystem science. Retrieved 29 August 2019 from http://www.yadvindermalhi.org/blog/does-the-amazon-provide-20-of-our-oxygen

Malhi Y., Roberts JT, Betts RA, Killeen TJ, Li W, Nobre CA. 2008. Climate Change, Deforestation, and the Fate of the Amazon. Science 319:169-172.

Patterson BD. 2000. Patterns and trends in the discovery of new Neotropical mammals. Diversity and Distributions, 6, 145-151.

Sea Mashable. 2019. The Amazon forest is burning to the ground. Here’s how it happened and what you can do to help. Retrieved 1 September 2019 from https://sea.mashable.com/culture/5813/the-amazon-forest-is-burning-to-the-ground-heres-how-it-happened-and-what-you-can-do-to-help

Wagner M, and Hayes M. 2019. Wildfires rage in the Amazon. CNN. Retrieved 26 August 2019 from https://www.cnn.com/americas/live-news/amazon-wildfire-august-2019/index.html

Wikipedia. 2019. Madeira river. Retrieved 29 August 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeira_River

Yeung J. 2019. Blame humans for starting the Amazon fires, environmentalists say. CNN. Retrieved 26 August 2019 from https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/22/americas/amazon-fires-humans-intl-hnk-trnd/index.html

The Intersection of Science and Politics

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As much as I try to keep politics out of my science vocabulary, there are some ties between the two that cannot be severed. Often, science in the United States is very linked to the government because funding can be dependent on federal, state, and/or local government decisions. Therefore, it is part of our responsibility as scientists to be, at least, informed on governmental proceedings.

The United States has one agency that is particularly important to those of us conducting marine science: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA’s mission is science, service, and stewardship with three major components:

  1. To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts
  2. To share that knowledge and information with others
  3. To conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources
noaa org chart
Organizational Chart of NOAA. (Image source: OrgCharting)

Last year, the U.S. Senate confirmed Retired Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, Ph.D., as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere for the Department of Commerce in NOAA. This position is an appointment by the current President of the United States, and is tasked with overseeing the daily functions and the strategic and operational future of NOAA. NOAA oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is an agency responsible for the stewardship and management of the nation’s living marine resources. NMFS is a major player when it comes to marine science, particularly through the determination of priorities for research and management of marine species and habitats within the United States’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In dark blue, the United States’ Exclusive Economic zones, surrounding land masses in green. (Figure by K. Laws)

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Gallaudet speak to scientists who work for, or in conjunction with, a NMFS office. After the 16% budget cut from the fiscal year 2017 to 2018, many marine scientists are concerned about how budget changes will impact research. Therefore, I knew Dr. Gallaudet’s visit would provide insight about the future of marine science in the United States.

Dr. Gallaudet holds master’s and doctoral degrees in oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as well as a bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy. He spent 32 years in the Navy before stepping into his current role as Assistant Secretary. Throughout the meeting, Dr. Gallaudet emphasized his leadership motto: All in, All Good, and All for One.

Dr. Gallaudet also spoke about where he sees NOAA moving towards: the private sector.

A prominent conservation geneticist asked Dr. Gallaudet how NOAA can better foster advanced degree-seeking students. The geneticist commented that a decade ago there were 10-12 PhD students in this one science center alone. Today, there is “maybe one”. Dr. Gallaudet responded that the science centers should start reaching out to private industry. In response to other questions, he continued to redirect scientists toward United States-based corporations that could join forces with government agencies. He believes that if NMFS scientists share data and projects with local biotechnology, medical, and environmental companies, the country can foster positive relationships with industry. Dr. Gallaudet commented that the President wants to create these win-win situations: where the US government pairs with for-profit companies. It is up to us, as the scientists, how we make those connections.

As scientists, we frequently avoid heated political banter in the hopes of maintaining an objective and impartial approach to our research. However, these lines can be blurred. Much of our science depends on political decisions that mold our future, including how funding is allocated and what goals are prioritized. In 2010, Science Magazine published an online article, “Feeding your Research into the Policy Debate” where Elisabeth Pain highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of science and policy. In Pain’s interview with Troy Benn, a PhD student in Urban Ecology at the time, Benn comments that he learned just how much scientists play a role in policy and how research contributes to policy deliberations. Sometimes our research becomes of interest to politicians and sometimes it is the other way around.

From my experiences collaborating with government entities, private corporations, and nonprofit organizations, I realize that science-related policy is imperative. California established a non-profit, the California Ocean Science Trust (OST), for the specific objective supporting management decisions with the best science and bridging science and policy. A critical analysis of the OST by Pietri et al., “Using Science to Inform Controversial Issues: A Case Study from the California Ocean Science Trust”, matches legislation with science. For example, the Senate Bill (SB) 1319, better known as the California Ocean Protection Act (COPA), calls for “decisions informed by good science” and to “advance scientific understanding”. Science is explicitly written into legislation and I think that is a call to action. If an entire state can mobilize resources to create a team of interdisciplinary experts, I can inform myself on the politics that have potential to shape my future and the future of my science.

An image of the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada transiting between stations. Multiple members of the GEMM Lab conducted surveys from this NOAA vessel in 2018. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki)