With every breath you take, thank a rainforest. A large amount of oxygen that we need is produced by the trees, flowers, algae, and mosses in these rich habitats.
But now, like an epidemic of fiery measles, forest fires are popping up across the Amazon rainforest of South America. Smoke chokes the skies over the continent’s biggest cities and covers half of Brazil. Unknown and untold numbers of species of trees, insects, frogs and birds are losing their homes and perishing in the flames.
How long before this affects us here in Philadelphia? It’s affecting the global ecology now, including our region. It's not turning the sky hazy or destroying the parks and watersheds that feed our water system. But the global reach of this year's fire catastrophe is affecting us in quieter and more insidious ways. As world leaders gather in New York later this month for the United Nations Climate Summit, we can only hope that this unfolding environmental catastrophe gets addressed in a meaningful way.
The very name "rainforest" makes you wonder: how do fires start in the rain? Fires get sparked when the forest begins to recede from the onslaught of people clearing it, around the edges and in spoke-like roads trailing away into the forest from streams feeding the mighty Amazon River. Clearing the forest and cutting down trees creates clear spaces where accidental fires and planned burns take hold. This happens every year, but this summer is much worse. In fact, deforestation from fires in the first weeks of August, the start of the dry season, is more than 80% higher than over the same period last year.
The flip side of the rainforest ecosystem service of producing the oxygen we breathe is the uptake of carbon dioxide by its trees, other plants and river algae in photosynthesis. Removing carbon dioxide is essential to moderate the effects of our burning fossil fuels, which pumps this gas into the atmosphere, adding to the warming of the planet through the well-known greenhouse effect. Destruction of rainforests means a more intense greenhouse effect, and a faster rate of planetary warming.
This year's rainforest burning wasn't responsible for the last few weeks of sweltering heat in Philly, but it could make future summers worse than they would have been. And the damage goes further than that.
Tropical rainforests are the Noah's ark of planetary biodiversity in terms of the huge number of species of plants and animals that make up the rich panoply of life on earth. Stroll through Fairmount Park, and you're likely to encounter dozens of species of trees, birds, fungi, insects, amphibians and fish. Beautiful, spiritually nourishing, and valuable in a huge number of ways, including economic. A trek in a similar-sized patch of rainforest would leave your head spinning, with literally hundreds of tree species and a cornucopia of thousands of other fungi, birds and mammals—many yet to be discovered—jumbled together in a complex community of interconnected life that depend on each other for survival.
The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has a long history of collaboration with South American scientists has yielded many such discoveries, as well as thousands of specimens documenting the rich biodiversity of the continent, and a disproportionate share of the richness of species on the entire planet.
Many rainforest plants have been the source of medicines for historical scourges in human history. Others yet to be discovered could hold clues to the spread of diseases such as malaria and viruses carried in a complicated network involving insects and the birds they live on. Other species are so mind-bogglingly strange and awe-inspiring that they simply convince us of the beauty of nature and give us a critical perspective on our ability to survive in it.
The recent catastrophic fire in Brazil's national museum of natural history destroyed many comparable specimen collections that documented the rich biota of the country. The Academy, along with museums around the world, have worked to help restore the biodiversity knowledge lost in this sad event. Such collections tell us what lives where, what has gone extinct, what invasive species may threaten indigenous habitats, and how human activity may threaten those very species. In other words, we use them to learn how humans and the rest of the world's species can all survive.
Rick McCourt is director of the Center for Systematic Biology and Evolution and Curator of Botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.