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The Amazon Is Nearing the Point of No Return

Deforestation Threatens South America’s Food and Power Supply

A man chops branches as part o​f the rainforest burns, 1997 Julio Etchart / Panos Pictures / R​edux

In 1975, the Brazilian scientist Enéas Salati made an astonishing discovery: the Amazon rainforest doesn’t just receive an unusual level of precipitation but actually creates half its own rainfall. The moisture contained in air masses crossing the Amazon basin, he showed, cycles through five or six phases of precipitation and evaporation before it reaches the high wall of the Andes Mountains. There, it rises, cools, and rains down one last time in a mighty deluge that suffuses the Amazon River system with water.

Previously, scientists had regarded vegetation largely as a consequence of climate. Forests, they believed, responded to their climatic environments but didn’t actively shape them. Salati showed to what extent plants and soil hold water and distribute it across large, evaporative surfaces—leaves, in particular—powering a hydrologic cycle that sustains the rainforest climate. His findings raised the possibility that deforestation might eventually degrade the hydrologic

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