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Biosphere, Climate, Geosphere



Since 1970, 600,000 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest have been lost through deforestation. Various causes have been cited, to include clearing for cattle grazing, colonization, agriculture, infrastructure expansion and logging.

Brazilians may resent other countries as they continue to pollute the atmosphere with fossil fuel emissions and engage in their own deforestation. But many look at rainforests as the lungs of the planet as the vegetation pulls carbon from the atmosphere. A look at the satellite image and animation to the right from Rondonia, Brazil shows large tracts of deforestation.

In answer to the question "how does climate change impact the Amazon?" Dr. Philip M. Fearnside of the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, discusses the hazard of continued deforestation:

"Deforestation is progressing rapidly, and if continued for 20 or 50 years the results would be disastrous. However, it is very important not to succumb to the fatalism that so often affects discussions of Amazonia. What happens depends on human decisions. This includes not only the direct deforestation that is destroying the forest, but also the climate changes that threaten to destroy the forest even without further clearing. Global warming is believed to be the cause of observed increases in the frequency of El Nino events, which are caused by warm surface water in the Pacific Ocean. Most climate models now predict "permanent" El Nino-like conditions to develop in the Pacific. One climate model (the Hadley Center model of the UK Meteorological Office) shows this permanent El Nino resulting in catastrophic die off of Amazonian forest by 2080 if global warming is unchecked. Other models currently do not show the connection between El Nino-like conditions and drought in Amazonia. Unfortunately for us, the fact that El Nino causes droughts in Amazonia is known from direct observations - it does not depend on the results of climate models. This is obvious to anyone in Amazonia who saw the fires in the El Nino of 1982-1983, 1997-1998 and 2003. The threat of a "permanent El Nino" is therefore to be taken very seriously. Again, it depends on how seriously society takes the problem to be. If fossil-fuel combustion and deforestation are reduced to reflect the importance of the problem, then the worst could be avoided. If this does not happen, the danger of a "runaway greenhouse" escaping from human control becomes much greater. Disintegration of the Amazon forest, with release of the carbon stocks in the biomass and soil, would be a significant factor in pushing us into a runaway greenhouse."*

*From October 22, 2006

Since 1975 Rondonia, Brazil has experienced a rapid growth in population due to immigration from surrounding states. Farmers have colonized the region adjacent to the main highway to take advantage of the cheap land offered by the government.

When we think of rainforests, the Amazon is probably the first region that comes to mind. But, the World Resources Institute reports that nearly one-third of the world's rainforests are in Africa, Asia, and other parts of Latin America beyond the Amazon. Even the United States has rainforests in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Judging from the images above, rainforests in other parts of the world may be disappearing faster than in the Amazon region.

Global Rates of Rainforest Destruction
(Source: Deforestation Rates in Tropical Forests and Their Climatic Implications)

  • 2.47 acres (1 hectare) per second: equivalent to two U.S. football fields
  • 150 acres (60 hectares) per minute
  • 214,000 acres (86,000 hectares) per day: an area larger than New York City
  • 78 million acres (31 million hectares) per year: an area larger than Poland

These rates of tropical deforestation raise many questions. What happens to our planet when a rainforest disappears? What happens to air quality when the rainforests are gone? What happens to the soil when a rainforest disappears? What happens to surrounding water quality when a forest is burned to make way for farming and grazing? When the forest is gone, will it come back? People can move to cities, but where do the animals, birds, and insects go?

Doing research to find out about tropical deforestation can lead to learning about biology, agriculture, rainforests, population growth, endangered species, habitats, land use practices, global warming, weather, climate change, and air quality.



Later this year in Brazil, scientists and representatives from government, business, and industry will convene the International Congress on Forest Resources. The United States is the incoming Secretariat for this group and the Secretary of State will deliver the keynote address during the opening session. The White House has asked NASA's Earth Science Division to examine the cumulative effects of deforestation on Earth systems and to draw some conclusions about the fate of the world's rainforests and the planet itself.

NASA in turn has contracted with your company to analyze the cause-and-effect relationships that exist among Earth systems as a result of rainforest destruction. The results of your analysis will serve as the talking points for the Secretary's keynote presentation and should include the hazards of continued rain forest destruction and recommendations for future courses of action with supporting Earth systems information.


Date: 7/30/2007

Scenario Images:

Brazil Deforestation 1975-2001
Rondonia, Brazil Deforestation 1975-2001
Click here to watch animation
Data gathered over time by several in the Landsat series of spacecraft shows enormous tracts of forest disappearing in Rondonia, Brazil. This territory underwent an enormous rise in population towards the end of the twentieth century, buoyed by cheap land offered by the national government for agricultural use. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

Deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil 2000
Deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil 2000

This false color satellite image from 2000 shows the extent of deforestation in the state of Rondonia, Brazil. Tropical rainforest appears bright red, while pale red and brown areas represent cleared land. Black and gray areas have probably been recently burned. The Jiparaná River appears blue. Image courtesy NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.



Earth Observatory: Tropical Deforestation (Cycle A)
This NASA article provides an overview of the issue of tropical deforestation, including: Introduction & Impacts of Deforestation, Climate Impacts, Causes of Deforestation, NASA Tropical Deforestation Research, and Sustaining Tropical Forests.


Encyclopedia of Earth - Deforestation in Amazonia (Cycle A)
This article discusses deforestation in the Amazon and includes: Introduction, History, Current rates and causes, Future paths, Impacts, Alternatives, and Further Reading.


Human Impact: Deforestation and Desertification (Cycle A)
By most estimates, the world's forests continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Logging, fires, and land-clearing for agriculture and grazing account for most of the loss. In some places, the green Earth is turning to desert.


World Resources Institute: Saving the Woods (Cycle A)
Search the World Resources Institute for current articles on deforestation.


Deforestation in the Amazon (Cycle B)
The rainforest section of is based on "A Place Out of Time: Tropical Rainforests - Their Wonders and the Perils They Face," a project by Rhett Ayers Butler.


Earth Observatory: Amazonia (Cycle B)
This NASA article provides an introduction to the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere experiment in Amazonia


In Tropics, Forests are Cool but Croplands are Hotter. (Cycle B)
NASA press release from 2003.


Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (Cycle C)
You will have access to data in the forms of data tables or graphs for use in the classroom.


Landcover Changes May Rival Green house Gases as Cause of Climate Change (Cycle C)
NASA 2002 press release: somewhat dated but relevant.


Sample Investigations:


Exploring The Environment: Loss of Habitat and Biodiversity (Cycle A)
In this problem-based learning (PBL) module, biodiversity, economic growth, and medical research vie for rainforest resources. Developed by NASA's Classroom of the Future at Wheeling Jesuit University. For grades 7-12.
Difficulty: intermediate


Image Composite Editor (Cycle B)
From January 26-February 6, 2004, an expedition of students, teachers, and scientists visited Barro Colorado Island, Panama, to explore the rainforest there while the JASON network of classrooms all over the world participated remotely via televised broadcasts. Participants can use the Image Composite Editor to analyze changes in the rainforest. For grades 7-10.
Difficulty: intermediate


Changes Around the World (Cycle C)
Images from NASA Landsat detail changes worldwide. Grades 5-12.
Difficulty: intermediate


Earth Exploration Toolbook: Annotating Change in Satellite Imagery (Cycle C)
This chapter walks users through a technique for documenting change in before-and-after sets of satellite images. The technique can be used for any set of images that show the same area at the same scale at different times.

Users examine three Landsat images of the Pearl River delta in southeastern China. The time series images show the region in 1988, 1992, and 1995. This chapter is most appropriate for students in grades 10-12. The technique, tool, and datasets could be useful to students in grades 7 through 14.
Difficulty: intermediate




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Natural hazards
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural resources
        • Environmental quality
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
        • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How physical systems affect human systems
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