Everyone on the planet benefits from the health of the Amazon. As its trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, the Amazon plays a huge role in pulling planet-warming greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Without it, climate change speeds up. But as the world’s largest rainforest is eaten away by logging, mining, and agribusiness, it may not be able to provide the same buffer.



“The Amazon was buying you some time that it is not going to buy anymore,” Carlos Quesada, a scientist at Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research, told Public Radio International in 2018. Scientists warn that the rainforest could reach a tipping point, turning into something more like a savanna when it can no longer sustain itself as a rainforest. That would mean it’s not able to soak up nearly as much carbon as it does now. And if the Amazon as we know it dies, it wouldn’t go quietly. As the trees and plants perish, they would release billions of tons of carbon that has been stored for decades — making it nearly impossible to escape a climate catastrophe.

Of course, those nearest to the fires will bear the most immediate effects. Smoke from the fires got so bad, it seemed to turn day into night in São Paulo on August 20th. Residents say the air quality is still making it difficult to breathe. On top of that, a massive global study on air pollution found that among the two dozen countries it observed, Brazil showed one of the sharpest increases in mortality rates whenever there’s more soot in the air.

And because fire isn’t a natural phenomenon in the region, it can have outsized impacts on local plants and animals. One in ten of all animal species on Earth call the Amazon home, and experts expect that they will be dramatically affected by the fires in the short term. In the Amazon, plants and animals are “exceptionally sensitive” to fire, Jos Barlow, a professor of conservation science at Lancaster University in the UK, said to The Verge in an email. According to Barlow, even low-intensity fires with flames just 30 centimeters tall can kill up to half of the trees burned in a tropical rainforest.