How much Oxygen does The Amazon produce? The plight of the Amazon has received widespread attention over the past week or so as reports surfaced that Brazil—which hosts around 60 percent of the world’s largest tropical forest—has experienced a significant spike in the number of wildfires this year.
Amid this coverage, many media outlets, charities, celebrities and even world leaders repeated the claim that the Amazon produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen supply. The implication here is that the destruction of the rain forest poses a threat to this oxygen supply.
But is this true? Experts say the real figure is actually smaller, and furthermore, this way of thinking is misleading given the true nature of the Amazon’s effect on global oxygen levels.
How much Oxygen does The Amazon produce?
Fires in the Amazon rainforest have captured attention worldwide in recent days. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in 2019, pledged in his campaign to reduce environmental protection and increase agricultural development in the Amazon, and he appears to have followed through on that promise.
The resurgence of forest clearing in the Amazon, which had decreased more than 80% following a peak in 2004, is alarming for many reasons. Tropical forests harbor many species of plants and animals found nowhere else. They are important refuges for indigenous people, and contain enormous stores of carbon as wood and other organic matter that would otherwise contribute to the climate crisis.
Some media accounts have suggested that fires in the Amazon also threaten the atmospheric oxygen that we breathe. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on Aug. 22 that “the Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire.”
The oft-repeated claim that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen is based on a misunderstanding. In fact nearly all of Earth’s breathable oxygen originated in the oceans, and there is enough of it to last for millions of years. There are many reasons to be appalled by this year’s Amazon fires, but depleting Earth’s oxygen supply is not one of them.
The Oxygen Production of the Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon rainforest is a vast and complex ecosystem that covers an area of approximately 5.5 million square kilometers, spanning nine countries in South America. The forest is home to millions of species of plants, animals, and microorganisms, and is considered one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. The trees in the Amazon rainforest are known to produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis, but the precise amount of oxygen produced is difficult to determine.
There are several reasons why it’s challenging to measure the amount of oxygen produced by the Amazon rainforest. First, the amount of oxygen produced by trees can vary depending on the age, species, and health of the trees, as well as environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels.
Second, trees also consume oxygen as they respire, which means that the net amount of oxygen produced is not simply a matter of measuring photosynthesis rates. Finally, the Amazon rainforest is a complex ecosystem that includes not just trees but also other types of vegetation, as well as microorganisms, fungi, and animals, all of which contribute to the overall oxygen balance.
Despite these challenges, several estimates have been made of the amount of oxygen produced by the Amazon rainforest. A widely cited figure is that the Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, but this number is often considered a myth or misconception. One reason for this is that the oxygen produced by the Amazon is not responsible for the world’s oxygen supply, as the majority of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from marine phytoplankton, which are photosynthetic organisms that live in the ocean. In fact, it’s estimated that marine phytoplankton produce between 50% and 85% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, depending on the source.
Another reason why the 20% figure is often challenged is that the precise amount of oxygen produced by the Amazon is difficult to measure. One study published in the journal Nature in 2019 estimated that the Amazon rainforest produces approximately 6% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The study used data from a variety of sources, including satellite measurements of photosynthesis rates, estimates of the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the forest, and measurements of oxygen levels in the atmosphere. The researchers also noted that the amount of oxygen produced by the Amazon can vary significantly from year to year due to factors such as droughts and wildfires.
Other sources have provided different estimates of the amount of oxygen produced by the Amazon. A study published in the journal Science in 1985 suggested that the Amazon rainforest produced 20% of the world’s oxygen, while a report from the United Nations Environment Programme in 2006 estimated that the Amazon produced 20% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, these figures have been criticized for relying on outdated or incomplete data.
Why the Amazon doesn’t really produce 20% of the world’s oxygen
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 rainforest’s importance: that it produces 20 percent 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 Emmanuel Macron, U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris, and actor and environmentalist Leonardo di Caprio.
Some have taken it to mean that we’re at risk of jeopardizing the world’s oxygen supply. “We need O2 to survive!” former astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted last week.
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 are a 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.
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