Amazon: “No, it’s Not Really the Lungs of the World … No!”

National Geographic by Katarina Zimmer published August 28 2019

As the news of fires raging in the Amazon spread across the world last week, so did a misleading yet oft-repeated claim about the rain forest’s importance that it produces 20% of the world’s oxygen.

That claim appears in news coverage from CNN, ABC News, Sky News, and others, and in social media posts by politicians and celebrities, such as French President Macron, U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate Kamala Harris and actor and environmentalist Leonardo di Caprio.

However the figure  – which has earned the forest the title “”lungs of the Earth” – is a gross overestimate.  As several scientists have pointed out in recent days, the Amazon’s net contribution to the oxygen we breathe likely hovers around zero.

There area number of reasons why you would want to keep the Amazon in place, oxygen just isn’t any one of them” remarks Earth systems scientist Michael Coe, who directs the Amazon program at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

Physically Impossible                                                                                                                           To Coe, the claim “just doesn’t make any physical sense” because there simply isn’t enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for trees to photosynthesize into an entire fifth of planet’s oxygen.

Think about it:  For every batch of carbon dioxide molecules trees pull out of the air, they push a comparable number of oxygen molecules back out.  Given that the atmosphere contains less than half a percent of carbon dioxide, but 21 percent oxygen, it’s not possible for the Amazon to generate that much oxygen.

Several scientists have come up with more accurate estimates. Avinder Malbi, an eosystem ecologist at oxford University’s Environmental ChangeInsi=titute, bases his calculation on a 2010 study that estimates tropical forests are responsible for around 34 percent of photosynthesis occurring on land.  Based on its size, the Amazon would account for about half of that.  That would mean the Amazon generates around 16 percent of oxygen produced on land, explains Malhi, who detailed his calculations in a recent blog post.

That percentage sinks to 9 percent when taking into account the oxygen produced by phytoplankton in the ocean.  Climate scientist Jonathan Foley, who directs the non-profit-Project Drawdown, which researches climate change solutions, arrived at a more conservative estimate of 6 percent.

download 5    Phytoplankton in the ocean, over billions of years, have steadily accumulated oxygen that made the atmosphere breathable.” Scott Denning;  Colorado State University.”

But that’s not the whole story.  Trees don’t just exhale oxygen – they also consume it in a process known as cellular respiration, where they convert the sugars they amass during the day into energy, using oxygen to power the process.  So, during the night when there’s no sun around for photosynthesis, they are net absorbers of oxygen.  Malhi’s research team reckons that trees inhale a little over half the oxygen they produce this way.  The rest is probably used up by the countless microbes that live in the Amazon, which inhale oxygen to break down dead organic matter of the forest.

“The net (oxygen) effect of the Amazon, or really any other blome, is around Zero.” he explains.

Because of this balance between oxygen production and consumption, modern ecosystems barely budge oxygen levels in the atmosphere.  Instead, the oxygen we breathe is the legacy of phytoplankton in the ocean that have over billions of years steadily accumulated oxygen that made the atmosphere breathable, explains Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University.

This oxygen could only accumulate because the plankton became trapped at the bottom of the ocean before they could rot otherwise, their decomposition by other microbes would have used up that oxygen.  The processes that determine how much oxygen is found in the atmosphere on average occur over vast geological timescales and aren’t readily influenced by the photosynthesis going on now, Deming explains in an article in ‘The Conversation.’

Cradle of Biodiversity                                                                                                                          Nevertheless, the 20 percent myth has been making the rounds for decades, though it’s unclear where it originated.  Malhi and Coe reckon it stems from the fact that the Amazon contributes around 20 percent of the oxygen produced by photosynthesis on land – which may have erroneously slipped into public knowledge as “20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere.”

Obviously, none of this is to say that the Amazon isn’t important.  In its pristine state, it makes a significant contribution to pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  Coe likens it not to a pair of lungs, but to a giant air conditioner that cools the planet – one of our most powerful in mitigating climate change alongside other tropical forests in central Africa and Asia – some of which are also currently burning.

The Amazon also plays an important role in stabilizing rainfall cycles in South America, and is a crucial home for indigenous peoples as well as countless animal and plant species.

download 8    Indigenous peoples of the amazon

“Very few people talk about biodiversity, but the Amazon is the most biodiverse ecosystem on land, and climate change and deforestation are putting that richness at risk, “notes climate scientist Carlos Nobre with the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

For its importance to the world the Amazon might as well be a metaphorical pair of lungs, and this analogy may have been helpful in galvanizing action around deforestation. But to researchers, it doesn’t make sense – not least because actual lungs inhale oxygen rather than exhaling it..

“If people want to relate it to a fundamental part of their body that maintains stability and maintains life, maintains wellbeing – symbolically, you can make some kind of association” says Nobre “physically speaking, it’s not really the lungs of the world.”