The Amazon's River in the Sky



When I first saw that the Amazon rainforest was on fire, it made me immediately think of the episode I saw of the recent series on Netflix called 'One Strange Rock'. Its a phenomenal series narrated by the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, interviewing astronauts like the rock star Chris Hadfield about their perspectives on the planet from space, and then diving into some of the magical science that allows our planet to continue to hum. Here's a sample of the Amazon rainforest episode.



Astronauts in space cannot see the Amazon rainforest most of the time because of a river of clouds swollen with water obscuring their view. That river flows to the Andes mountains where it erodes the rock and takes the sediment back into the Amazon river basin and eventually the ocean. It is in the ocean that this sediment serves as fertilizer for diatoms, a type of microalgae, that are responsible for something like 50% of the oxygen on the planet.


Here is a 2-minute clip from the same episode about the diatoms.



The trees in the Amazon rainforest do turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, but that is apparently consumed entirely locally by the robust biodiversity of Amazon animalia. But the trees do not just turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. They are the highways of water molecules that make up this river in the sky that is even bigger than the Amazon river itself.


A burned tree in the Amazon has a double impact. It is tragic that the oxygen from one such tree will not be used by the animals in the rainforest - oxygen and animals which support local indigenous people as well. But more than that, we are letting these burning trees affect the global oxygen supply. These global planetary processes work in tandem with one another so a burnt tree in the amazon actually does affect one out of every two breaths we take as a human beings, in South America and around the world.


It's crucial that we start to see the Earth as one system and not as a number of isolated nodes that do not impact one another.


Here's another video from PBS on the subject. According to this, trees in the Amazon release 20 billion liters of water from their leaves into the sky every day. Trees in general are responsible for 90% of the water that is taken up into our atmosphere. When a tree gets chopped down or burned to make room for agriculture, it's important to think about how that is one less tree contributing to global precipitation or surface water that would go to irrigating that very same square meter of agriculture.


The Earth is one system and it affects each and every one of us.