Tens of thousands of fires are pushing the Amazon to a tipping point

Fire in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, in Porto Velho, Rondônia state, in mid-August.

(CNN)Fires continue to rage at high levels through the Amazon in Brazil for the second consecutive year, raising concerns among scientists that the rainforest's destruction could eventually reach a point of no return.

Since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office, governmental measures to curb illegal fires have shown little impact, as flames and deforestation erase vast swathes of the world's biggest rainforest.
NASA satellite photo shows smoke from fires in the Brazilian Amazon on August 1
Most fires in the Amazon are set by land-grabbers and wildcat ranchers, seeking to transform parts of the rainforest into their own lucrative agricultural enterprises. And this August was a particularly bad time for such fires: Preliminary data collected by the National Spatial Research Institute (INPE) show 29,307 fires in the Brazilian Amazon last month.
    However, due to a technical issue with the NASA satellite tracking fires, experts say that figure could be even higher. The final tally of fires recorded in August is expected to rise 2% above the August 2019 total, says Albert Setzer, INPE's senior scientist -- which would make this August the worst in 10 years.
    The more fires there are, the faster the rainforest is transformed into grasslands for illicit cattle and soy-growing operations. According to research from NGO MapBiomas, which tracks land use in Brazil, 95% of the deforested area in Brazil in 2019 wasn't authorized. "Most of (the fires) are illegal," said Tasso Azevedo, a former head of Brazil's forest service and coordinator of MapBiomas.
    Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon biome reached 1,830 square miles, an area bigger than Rhode Island state, in the period from January to July 2020,. August figures for deforestation are yet to be released.

    A tipping point?

    As the trend goes on, the Amazon is speeding toward a tipping point, when large areas of the rainforest will no longer be able to produce enough rain to sustain itself, according to Carlos Nobre, one of Brazil's leading climate scientists and researcher at the University of Sao Paulo.
    Once that happens, the rainforest will begin to die, eventually turning into savannah, said Nobre.
    The Amazon serves as an "air conditioner" for the planet, scientists say, influencing global temperature and rainfall patterns. And a healthy Amazon also absorbs carbon dioxide, while fires do the opposite, releasing massive quantities of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
    Cattle next to smoke from fires in Lábrea, Amazonas state, in mid-August.