The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) recently published its International Statistic of the Decade, and the “winner” was the stark statistic that the Amazon lost 24,000 square miles of rainforest. That is a land size equivalent to 10.3 million American gridiron football fields or 8.4 million soccer fields. This sobering deforestation figure highlights the harsh landscape changes caused by intentional human encroachment for commercial development purposes, such as logging, mining and cattle ranching.

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a swampy area with stacked logs, and trees in the background

“The statistic only gives a snapshot of the issue, but it really provides an insight into the dramatic change to the landscape that has occurred over the past decade,” Liberty Vittert, a Harvard University visiting scholar and a statistician on the RSS judging panel, said.

Related: Amazon rainforest might reach irreversible tipping point as early as 2021

Deforestation matters. Why? For one, the Amazon rainforest is a biodiversity hotspot, home to thousands of plant and animal species at risk of endangerment and extinction. Secondly, the Amazon Basin supplies a considerable amount of water vapor to the atmosphere; its deforestation leads to drought and attendant wildfires, which further exacerbate the ecosystem equilibrium of the rainforest habitat. Also, the loss of trees and other vegetation causes soil erosion, which increases the risks for flooding and a host of other problems such as land loss for indigenous people and habitat loss for endemic flora and fauna species.

a green forest with a black and yello bird sitting on a tree branch

When species become endangered, the ecosystem and its biodiversity equilibrium are imbalanced, triggering chain reactions where one loss leads to another. We lose not only those plants and animals we know of, but even undiscovered ones with medicinal potential that could never be recovered. Hence, when ecosystems weaken, all species, even humans, are placed at risk. 

The Amazon’s deforestation is considerable because it is the world’s largest rainforest, spanning nine South American countries and measuring about 25 times the size of the United Kingdom. Therefore, it plays a vital role in our planet’s climate regulation. The rainforest’s canopy, for example, regulates temperature, cooling the atmosphere. The canopy similarly controls atmospheric water levels, affecting the water cycle and stabilizing the rainfall of South America.

a landscape of a forest with mist hanging over it

Of utmost significance, too, is the Amazon’s role in carbon sequestration. After all, this rainforest absorbs and stores more than 180 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Without the Amazon as a carbon sink, the carbon is released back into the air, adding to greenhouse gases, which is ultimately bad news for Earth’s climate. Indeed, were it not for the Amazon rainforest helping to re-absorb the carbon from the carbon footprint generated by human consumption, land use and fossil fuel burning, climate change will not be buffered. 

Professor Jennifer Rogers, chair of the judging panel and RSS vice-president for external affairs, explained further, “Irreplaceable rainforests, like the Amazon, are shrinking at an alarming rate, and this statistic gives a very powerful visual of a hugely important environmental issue. Much has been discussed regarding the environment in the last few years, and the judging panel felt this statistic was highly effective in capturing one of the decade’s worst examples of environmental degradation.”

+ Royal Statistical Society


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