Hi Reddit! My name is Robert Walker, and I’m a professor of Latin American Studies and geography at the University of Florida and an adjunct faculty of the Federal University of Para, in Belem, Brazil.

Since the early 1990s, I have conducted research in the Amazon. My research focuses on land change in the Amazon Basin, especially tropical deforestation. I have led a number of field activities in the Amazon, studying the land by using numerical methods, remote sensing and interviewing farmers, loggers, ranchers and indigenous groups to uncover threats to the area and its people.

Just yesterday, I was interviewed by NBC News about the Amazon fires. In January, I published a piece in The Conversation titled “Amazon deforestation, already rising, may spike under Bolsonaro.”

I’m here to answer any questions you may have about the Amazon.


Here’s a bit more about me:

I received a Ph.D. in Regional Science from the University of Pennsylvania (1984) as well as an MS in Environmental Engineering (1976) and BS in Chemistry from the University of Florida (1973). In 2014, I returned to my home state and joined the University of Florida.

Update: Thank you all for your engaging questions! I have to step away but I'll try to check in this afternoon to answer some more.

Comments: 413 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

PlacePols162 karma

People have said on social media that these fires happen every year and this year is no different. Why is what's happening now really a cause for concern?

ufexplore336 karma

this is a good question. It is true that there is a yearly fire cycle in Amazonia. this year fall within historical variability of the yearly fire count, but it is the worst since 2010, which suffered a very serious drought. So, there is cause for concern on those grounds, namely that the fires are very bad even though this year has not been a bad drought year (there was a mild El Nino that ended in July).

Something else to consider is the historical timing of the fires. A number like this would have had little consequence in the early 1980s, when much of the forest was intact. But now, with 20 percent gone, the effect of fire is to bring us ever closer to the environmental catastrophe of a "tipping point," the loss of the entire forest via conversion to fire-adapted scrub savanna.

_Des0late160 karma

What would happen to the world if the entire amazon burnt down?

ufexplore302 karma

we would have a tragic loss of biodiversity and indigenous cultures. agriculture in South America and into central North America would be harmed. poverty, disruption of hydro-ecological systems.

AmyDHD146 karma

Hello, Yesterday I was reading this article https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/08/26/why-everything-they-say-about-the-amazon-including-that-its-the-lungs-of-the-world-is-wrong/?fbclid=IwAR13sUsuze7JmuCLY1PiEL2ucak70volWe9IJ45skXmAx2fIYlxqOxvx_y4#1492bc435bde and scientist Dan Nepstad who is reported to have studied the Amazon for decades was saying that a lot of what we hear about the fire and Amazon (i.e. it being the lungs of the world) is BS. How do we know where to get good information and what sources we can believe? Thanks.

ufexplore282 karma

Dan is a fine scientist. I believe I would make his points as follows: the fires of today are a serious problem, yes, but they fall within historic variability, as there have been years with more, given fire is an agricultural technology used by ranchers and farmers alike in resource frontiers such as Amazonia. That said, today's fires are the worst since 2010, which occurred during a period of intense drought. So....the bottom line: fires have been a problem in the Amazon since its opening. They are more worrisome today given how much forest has been lost, and the prospects of an environmental catastrophe in the form of a "tipping point" disaster with the conversion of the entire biome into a fire-adapted scrub savanna. The new is not BS. It does lack context, however.

it's hard to know where to go for the info. the best place is to the researchers who work in the region, Dan Nepstad being one of them. I'm glad to be here today to offer my own impressions. I am glad you're asking this particular question which may be the most important: how do we really know what's going on here.

BoxBeast195887 karma

Hi Dr. Walker! I'm reading conflicting things about the Amazon being the "lungs" of the planet. My heart hurts seeing the destruction of the plants & animals. How bad is the damage to the planet going to be? And what can I (ordinary, vegetarian, recycling human) do better in my everyday life to help preserve the Amazon..?

Thank you for this AMA.

ufexplore181 karma

As a vegetarian you are doing as much as anybody can, because cattle ranching is the prime driver of Amazonian deforestation. If all became vegetarians, we would save much of the global environment.

hatcatcha64 karma

Thanks for the AMA Dr. Walker! You served on my master’s committee (recently - Kissimmee River) and I took your Environmental Catastrophes course a few years ago. I remember during this course we discussed beef production and the Amazon/Brazil.

Can you speak to how American beef (and chicken, even from right here in north Florida) reaches Brazil? I can’t remember details, but remember discussing that nearly all of our beef is somehow shipped to and produced in Brazil, after being raised in the US. How is this practice also negatively impacting the Amazon and how can Americans be proactive in demanding this ends (this is particularly for those who refuse to limit their meat consumption)?

ufexplore102 karma

Most of the Brazilian beef exports go to countries other than the US, given concerns about foot and mouth disease. However, there is an interesting corporate connection via companies such as JBS, the largest meat producer in the world (beef, chicken, pork, etc.) which has bought up a number of US corporations. In fact, JBS is active in Florida! Thus, US capital is implicated in the cattle economy of Amazonia, more than the US consumer. As you suggest, if people stopped eating meat, the problem deforestation problem would be greatly mitigated, but in that this is unlikely what can be done is to encourage, via our politicians, that Brazil simply adhere to its own environmental policies and protections, which are presently under attack by the Bolsonaro administration

Slommyhouse32 karma

What is causing the fires? And how do we mitigate the effects? What is the long term effects of the deforestation of the Amazon?

ufexplore92 karma

the fires are caused by ranchers and farmers who use it as an agricultural technology to clear fields, fertilize soil. they are exacerbated by drought conditions, which this year are mild. the long term effect of deforestation will derive from loss of unknown opportunities based on its biodiversity and from loss of climate regulation, which will affect agriculture in the Southern and Northern Hemispheres. finally, forest destruction will translated into a massive loss of indigenous culture.

onlyartist629 karma

Do we indeed have 10 years to spare in terms of Climate Change, or are we already experiencing the part of the worst climate effects and are indeed late in our efforts?

Thank you for the AMA Dr!

ufexplore65 karma

No one knows exactly how much time remains. With the Amazon, we are near a so-called tipping point, a magnitude of deforestation beyond which further loss will triggers a conversion of moist forest to a fire-adapted scrub savanna. This could happen within 10 years if deforestation isn't curbed. Nearly 20 percent of the forest is lost. The conventional tipping point magnitude is 40 percent, but that doesn't take into account climate change. Carlos Nobre, a well-known climate scientist, suggests that 20 percent is sufficient to trigger the vegetative shift given some additional warming.

henrayz20 karma

I checked to see if this had been asked and didn't see it but if it has my mistake.

What do you think is the most direct action someone in the U.S., Europe, or other country outside the Amazon can do in order to aid the situation there? Is donating to organizations our only option and if so which ones do you suggest?

Thank you for doing this!

ufexplore51 karma

I honestly think the best way to go about this is to create political pressure. Protest has worked in the past. I would build a political action group rather than donate money elsewhere. You simply don't know where the money will end up. People need to get organized on this issue. Time is of the essence.

GatorChamp4418 karma

Hello Dr. And thank you for the AMA.

What is Brazil's government doing to stop this from happening in the future? Have the considered reversing or amending the law passed in the 70s you mentioned in another response?

Also, what did you think of the Miami game? I thought Franks looked pretty decent but made some poor decisions and showed poor character on the sidelines. I was pleased overall with our young offensive line and the pass rush was amazing. Your thoughts?

ufexplore35 karma

The government has actually retreated from effective fire control by placing the Brazilian Forestry Department, charged with monitoring rural properties for excessive deforestation, under the Ministry of Agriculture, which is pro-development. Bolsonaro also fired the head of the Brazilian Space agency because he thought they were exaggerating the deforestation numbers. Thus, it will be interesting to see how Bolsonaro responds to all the international pressure.

Game? Football?

onlyartist617 karma

What sort of Technology will we need in order to fight and help reverse the Climate Catastrophe?

Can we actually rely on just Renewables?

Don't solar panels for example contribute to the waste ecosystem as well and are we capable of fully meeting our Energy needs as well as emission requirements through these?

ufexplore48 karma

good questions!

we can reverse climate catastrophe with carbon scrubbers that remove greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere.

ultimately, we SHOULD rely on renewables, as this encourages us to develop economies that are self-sustaining and do not constantly push us to new frontiers for mineral and fossil fuel exploitation.

solar panels require a great deal of energy to build! check out Howard Odum's net energy studies. He was one of the great ecologists of the 20th century, and a UF Prof!

firesdancetheshadows16 karma

Hello Dr. Walker, I have a question regarding the effects of the Amazonian fires on tropical climates. If the Amazon were to be burned down, would it be likely to cause more stronger tropical storms (hurricanes, cyclones, etc.) like the ones we’ve been seeing form recently? Also, how would this affect our jet streams or the flow of water or air in general around the world? Thank you for your time!

ufexplore28 karma

The climate modelers tell us this about the effects: Moisture transport to the central part of the South American continent would be impacted and become drier, not to mention other parts of Brazil. This would have a significant impact on continental agriculture, obviously. They also suggest that, via what are called teleconnections, the Mississippi Valley in North America could be affected by drought. I haven't seen any results yet detailing impacts on storm generation and the like, but wouldn't rule it out.

FastGM313 karma

In the United States we have protected lands that prevent people from building on or damaging the lands in any way. What sort of protections are in place for the Amazon and if any who enforces those protections. In other words why are farmers and ranchers allowed to get away with these burnings? How much of the Amazon is actually protected and whose to stop future development?


ufexplore35 karma

A huge amount of Amazonia is in some sort of protect status, 40-50%. About half of this comprises indigenous territories. Brazil's protected areas program is extensive and comprehensive, and includes national parks, much like those in the US. The problem is in enforcement of law prohibiting entry into such areas. There are many poor people in the region who have nothing, and their only recourse is to farm where they can, which can put them at odds with environmental law. The bigger problem is the government, which began downsizing protected areas in the Amazon several years ago to make way for a huge infrastructure project, known as the Initiative to Integrate the Regional Infrastructure of South America, or IIRSA. In the US, unfortunately, we can similar situations. In Florida, the Everglades have been severely degraded, and the state parks, the so-called "real Florida," as in bad shape. Then there are the springs.....I could go on. The entire world is destroying its natural heritage.

Captain_Desi_Pants10 karma

Sorry, this must be an especially sad and alarming time for you, given your field of study. But I am thankful for people like you!

Do you think the Amazon has a real chance of recovery after the scope of the fires this week coupled with the huge challenges of Bolsonaro’s disastrous environmental policies?

ufexplore28 karma

It is a sad time, but it has been a sad time for awhile. I feel like I've awaken from a nightmare only to realize I haven't been sleeping!

Unfortunately, fires have been burning in the Amazon since the government opened it to development in the 1970s. The fires of today are the worst since 2010, but they fall within historical variability. That doesn't mean the are of little concern, because they are, especially with Bolsonaro's environmental policy regime. Environmental enforcement of the forestry code, in particular, has been impacted, and there is reason to believe ranchers and farmers will be further emboldened by this and accelerate the pace of deforestation, which depends on fire. Unfortunately, September is usually worse than August wrt Amazonian fires. So...the worst is yet to come.

NikiNeu10 karma

I have heard that in North American forests sporadic natural fires are normal/ helpful and trying to prevent them will only make forests more dense thus making eventual fires more damaging. Is this true and does this happen in the Amazon, too?

Disclaimer: I do realize that current fires are very much not natural, helpful, or normal.

ufexplore21 karma

The issue of fire and forests is a tricky one. In systems that are "fire-adapted," which means they experience fire with some sort of natural periodicity. Thus, in the absence of fire, fuels build in the form of organic materials which can create a much more serious and destructive fire than the type of fire the system has adapted to. Thus, many argue for "prescribed" burns, which are meant to clear out the debris and avoid a real problem. In Amazonia, the fire issue is a different one. Wildfires are rare, and the systems are much more humid. Fires are deliberately started to clear the forest for agriculture and to fertilize the soils.

AbdelLezze8 karma

Where do you see the state of the Amazon being in the next decade?

ufexplore32 karma

In the next decade, the Lower Basin will be almost entirely deforested, except for a few indigenous reserves peopled by tribes willing to fight for their land (e.g., Muduruku, Kayapo). The Central Basin will be like the Lower Basin 20 years ago, on the verge of development. The arc of deforestation will push up from the south, devastating what forest remains in Mato Grosso and Rondonia. Acre will also lose its forests with all the new transportation infrastructureconnecting Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru. The only intact primary will forest will be west of the Purus River, much of which is swamp and palm. The tipping point catastrophe will be upon us. Go see the Amazon now if it's something you've wanted to do, because it will be too late very soon. I'm not kidding.

onlyartist68 karma

In respect to the amazon, would I be wrong in stating that the biggest threat to the Amazon is the fact that the people see it as a source of development?

Have strict laws regarding forestation of the Amazon Rainforest inversely sped up attempts to Harvest the amazon?

ufexplore14 karma

two questions:

YES, to your question 1. I would only add that it's often the "powers-that-be", namely politicians and corporations, who see the Amazon as a field of opportunity for development.

I don't think the laws have encouraged excess deforestation, as they attempt to restrict the amount of land that can be cleared. But for the past several decades they have done little to actually stem the tide of forest destruction.

BrunoFromBrazil8 karma

What do you think about european countries funding the demarcation of indigenous land in the Amazon as a way to recolonize Brazil for its mineral resources?

ufexplore13 karma

This is an excellent question. Many of the lands have already been demarcated, and if anything the new government is back-stepping here. This function has been removed from the indigenous agency (FUNAI) and put under the Ministry of Agriculture, which is no friend to indigenous peoples.

Actually, many of the mineral rights have already been allocated, mostly to transnational corporations, many with Brazilian partners. For example, The Vale Corporation was awarded a concession to explore for gold in the Munduruku territories along the Tapajos River and tributaries.

cracksilog7 karma

Has the fight to prevent deforestation always been political (e.g., you mention the president in one of your articles and his administration’s role)? Is there a consensus from politicians as to when to stop deforestation, or do they not see it as an issue?

ufexplore16 karma

All big fights have a political dimension, and causes always get politicized. The fight to "save the Amazon" began as an environmental quest based on genuine concerns about the global environment. The push-back by Bolsonaro has assumed a political form, for sure. The retreat from environmental policy applications is a political move that gladdens stake-holders in his constituency. There is no consensus among politicians about when to stop deforestation. In general, I don't think they see it as an issue until their constituents make it one. As for a more general consensus: i think the climate scientists are telling us we need to stop deforestation so that it doesn't reach 40 percent. Beyond that, we run the risk of compromising the basin's ability to recycle rainfall, which would destroy the remaining forest, with dire cultural, ecological, and economic consequences.

PMacDiggity7 karma

If we lose the Amazon, what will happen to the breath-ability of our atmosphere? Will that lower the maximum vertical limit (currently about 18,000' as I understand)?

ufexplore15 karma

the oceans guarantee our oxygen supply. the Amazon Forest produces oxygen but also consumes it via respiration. so, you'll be able to breath once it's all gone. the big concerns are for the loss of regional climate regulation and biodiversity.

hashtag_lives_matter7 karma

What are your thoughts about people suddenly caring about the rain forest burning, when this has been happening for decades?

To me, it seems like people assumed the rain forest never burned because hurr durr rain but obviously that isn't the case.

ufexplore12 karma

As I said in one response, I personally feel like I've awaken from a nightmare only to realize I wasn't dreaming. True, there has been a fire cycle in the Amazon since they opened it to development in the 1970s. But each time we have fire, we have that much more deforestation (fire is used to deforest), which brings us that much closer to environmental catastrophe. Further, these fires are the worst since 2010, which was a very serious drought year. Could the fires of today indicate that the forest is drying out due the yearly cycle of fires? If so, then we should be VERY alarmed even though there have been fires in the past. A dry forest is much easier to push over the precipice to an altered and degraded system, then one that is moist, which is what the Amazon is supposed to be. Be worried about the cumulative effect, not the yearly incidence.

blaxe_6 karma

What was the most interesting encounter you've had while working in the Amazon?

ufexplore15 karma

This is the most difficult question so far, as there are too many interesting encounters to count! The most amazing thing I've experienced was during a drive across the Transamazon Highway in the State of Amazonas, between Jacareacanga and Apui. We were the only vehicle on the road, or course, which isn't much of a road, really, just a track of dirt. All of a sudden we saw a macaw, then another and another. We stopped the vehicle and jumped out. There was a Buriti Palm swamp to either side, and a veritable "city of macaws" flapping about the tree tops, roosting, climbing up and down the trunks, squawking up a racket (they've very loud!) . For about a half an hour we actually "played" with them. The flew at us without any sort of fear, sometimes buzzing us up close. After awhile we grew tired of all the interaction and got back in the truck and left. Oh yes, the following day we almost got shot by some loggers on whose lands we'd accidentally trespassed, but that's another interesting encounter.

DrHivesPHD6 karma

What's your favorite species, recently or otherwise, which has gone extinct?

ufexplore15 karma

No one really know how many species have gone extinct in the Amazon because as of yet we don't have a list of all the species that exist or have existed thee. But, the endemism of the region guarantees that there have been extinctions. I am familiar with localized extinctions, for example of jaguar in parts of the lower basin, due to encroaching development. If you drive the Transamazon Highway, from east to west, you begin in a part of the State of Para, where there are few remaining jaguar, and end up in the State of Amazonas where there are so many they call them "insects".

F1eshWound6 karma

I know for example in Australia rainforest takes between several hundred to a thousand years to naturally regenerate thanks to the fire regimes etc. Is this also the case for the amazon? Can it regenerate "quickly" if left undisturbed?

ufexplore10 karma

No one knows. But.....climate modelers Oyama and Nobre hypothesize that Amazonia possesses 2 stable states, a moist one and a dry one. What this means is that if you deforest and get to the dry state, there's no coming back; the system is stuck forever and the forest does not recover.

j-m-kays6 karma

Can you explain the concept of forest dieback and if you think that is happening or will happen in the Amazon? Can you think of any comparable forest diebacks in other parts of the world, in recent history or farther back?

ufexplore6 karma

forest dieback, at least in the Amazonian discourse, refers to the retreat of the forest due to thermal stress associated with a warming climate (i.e., global warming). this is in contrast to a forest tipping-point, which reflects the compromise of rainfall recycling due to deforestation, with reduced precipitation. both lead to the same result, though.

to find forest die-backs, go to the ice ages of earlier times. the amazon forest retreated to what are called refugia. this is in the geologic record, though, not in current time.

tomedornottomed20195 karma

How much has the biodiversity of the amazon changed, from the 90s 'till now? Are there plant/animal species that no longer exist now? And how does that affect the lives of amazonian tribes?

ufexplore9 karma

I can't give you a solid answer here, because there are no complete lists of Amazonian species. The high amount of endemism, however, guarantees permanent extinctions. What this means is that there are species we never knew and never well. As for the indigenous peoples, so far they are mostly unaffected because they occupy large parts of the forest that are still intact....at least until now. There are exceptions, of course, such as the Tembe near Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River.

andr0idus3r5 karma

Hello. Thank you for your AMA.

I was reading this article the other day. It sort of changed the way I look at climate change as it's represented in the media. That is, I will take climate change news with a grain of salt and do my own research before developing an opinion. https://wattsupwiththat.com/2019/08/25/how-the-media-help-to-destroy-rational-climate-debate/

My question is, what are your thoughts on the article if you have read it?

Edit: a word

ufexplore9 karma

one should always do their own research. be sure to vet the expert, though. check out their resume and make sure they have close professional contact with the subject area they espouse.

Kisuke1464 karma

Do you think global warming is going to destroy humanity in 30 years?

ufexplore13 karma

No, I think that's a stretch. There are likely to be serious disruptions, however, especially with sea-level rise.

fsanchez10273 karma

If the entire Amazon forest burned down, what would be the lasting result for the rest of us, over the next 25 years?

ufexplore4 karma

that question was asked, please see response.

Veeoh3 karma

So, we’re fucked, right Professor? Sigh.

ufexplore23 karma

OMG, i don't want to give you such an extreme impressions. But, as Maynard Keynes once said, "we're all dead in the long-run."

I think there's still time to get a handle on this, but people have to get excited and angry.

Darkheartisland0 karma

How often is Jeff Bezos in the office?

ufexplore3 karma

He just stepped out to Starbucks.