Amazon Emergency: But Pump the Brake on the “20 percent of our Oxygen” Story

August 23, 2019

The running story line, repeated in the CNN piece above, is that “the Amazon produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen”.

Nope, that’s wrong – it’s an emergency and a criminal act, and global challenge, but the 20 percent is just not right. It’s less than a third of that.

Climate Nexus:

Coverage of the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest are incredibly concerning, but many stories describing the fires include the inaccurate figure that the Amazon represents 20% of the planet’s oxygen production. Multiple climate scientists have pointed out that this is wrong.
While the fires are having a tremendous impact on the global climate and the well-being of local communities, and according to fire experts who study the region are perhaps unprecedented over at least the past 20,000 years, they are not a threat to the planet’s oxygen supply.

As Dr. Jonathan Foley explained in a lengthy Twitter thread, the Amazon represents at most approximately 6% of the world’s oxygen production, and it is “biologically and physically impossible for the Amazon to produce 20% of the world’s oxygen.”And in reality, even that 6% is likely an overestimation, given that oxygen production from plant growth is offset by the decomposition from plant death.
Current oxygen levels are the result of millions of years of annual production. The loss of the Amazon won’t cause oxygen levels to immediately plummet. Moreover, the vegetation that emerges after the fires will also produce oxygen. As Dr. Scott Denning noted on Twitter, even if all oxygen production on the planet were to stop, it would still “take a million years for O2 to be depleted.” 
The fires do consume oxygen directly, but they’re not going to burn up any significant amount of Earth’s oxygen. Dr. Ken Caldeira pointed out on Twitter, even burning all the fossil fuels in the world would only “consume <3% of atmospheric O2.”
Photosynthesis converts atmospheric CO2 to living tissue, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. But virtually all of that oxygen is later consumed by respiration, decomposition, or combustion. Only a minuscule fraction of the oxygen produced by photosynthesis is retained in the air. Nearly all of the production of oxygen happens in ocean sediments, not on land. If all oxygen production were to cease tomorrow, it would take about a million years for atmospheric oxygen to be depleted.

Dr. Scott Denning, Professor, Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University said“My understanding is that the big story is the de-facto policy reversal by the Bolsonaro government regarding deforestation. Fires have historically been set during the Amazon dry season to clear land for farms, reaches, and settlement.
In recent years the rate of deforestation for agriculture was severely curtailed by strong policy which was unevenly enforced. The Bolsonaro government has dramatically reduced enforcement and even encouraged new clearing in public remarks, and the new fires are a result of that.
The story is corruption and mismanagement, and the loss of one of the planet’s major carbon sinks, not asphyxiation!

12 Responses to “Amazon Emergency: But Pump the Brake on the “20 percent of our Oxygen” Story”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    October 2013: The southern reaches of the Amazon rainforest are drying up – a little bit more each year. That’s according to a new study which finds that since 1979, the region’s dry season has got about a week longer each decade.

    => Drying in the Amazon rainforest – what could it mean for climate change?

  2. redskylite Says:

    Maybe the oxygen contribution is exaggerated, but not the uncontacted tribes – uncontacted they may be, but they are still fellow flesh and blood, and their well-being should be taken into account by the nation’s leaders.

    Wikipedia –
    On 18 January 2007, FUNAI reported that it had confirmed the presence of 67 uncontacted tribes in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this reported increase, Brazil has surpassed the island of New Guinea (divided between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) as the region having the highest number of uncontacted tribes. Not callous indifference.

    “Of even greater concern is the fate of the Amazon’s many indigenous communities. One million indigenous people live in the Brazilian part of the Amazon basin, many in complete isolation from the outside world.

    “Nobody knows what’s going on with them … they have no firemen to call to go there and put out the fire,” says Ivaneide Bandeira Cardoso, the well-known founder of Kanindé, a Porto Velho-based advocacy group for indigenous communities.”

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I recently heard a podcast about the utility of Saharan dust in providing iron for oxygen-producing phytoplankton in the mid-Atlantic, and it reminded me of back when people were promoting use of iron filings to promote the growth of these carbon-consuming blooms. I guess that they didn’t realize back then that the iron also fed the toxic blooms that kill off the marine food chain.

  4. Sir Charles Says:

    BTW, the Amazon rainforest is absorbing 25% of world’s CO2.

  5. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Thanks Greenperson, the 20% figure agitated my old fart scientific pedantic soul. A quick surf of Google threw up 20% everywhere. Can not believe things written down, who would credit it? Still a horrible situation.

  6. redskylite Says:

    It is widely stated that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, even the National Geographic educates inquisitive kids on this “fact”.

    I would hope that such an important fact is well checked before publishing.

    Indeed it does not distract from the disaster unfolding in South America, but let’s hope for more accurate facts in future.

    “Ready for an amazing outdoor adventure with Nat Geo Kids? Then check out our awesome Amazon facts as we head into the depths of the Amazon rainforest!

    9. This area of immense natural beauty is sometimes referred to as ‘the lungs of the Earth’. This is because the rich vegetation takes carbon dioxide out of the air, and releases oxygen back in. In fact, more than 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon.”

  7. dumboldguy Says:

    Ah yes, everyone is getting excited over the latest “true crime story”—-the destruction of the Amazon rain forest by burning. Once this abnormal number of fires has been put out and the “normal” rate of degradation returns, it will no longer be big news. Just look at how we don’t talk much anymore about peat fires in Indonesia, destruction of the Congo rain forest, blazes in Paradise, etc.

    And smurfy and the other reality deniers would have us plant some trees here and there, so I guess we should feel good about how much we care.

  8. rsmurf Says:

    So I guess 6% isn’t enough to protect the amazon? But the deal is we need to protect the entire planet from FURTHER TERRAFORMING. Enough is enough. STOP.
    And yes trees will eventually solve the co2 problem, it will take years but it will solve the problem but only if we choose to stop producing more co2. And again ill ask you to look at yourselves and do your part, NO ONE IS GOING TO FIX THIS THERE IS WAY TOO MUCH MONEY INVOLVED!

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