Amazon Wildfires Are Horrifying, But They’re Not Destroying Earth’s Oxygen Supply

by Scott Denning, August 22, 2019 in LiveSci=nce

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.”

Don’t hold your breath

Even though plant photosynthesis is ultimately responsible for breathable oxygen, only a vanishingly tiny fraction of that plant growth actually adds to the store of oxygen in the air. Even if all organic matter on Earth were burned at once, less than 1% of the world’s oxygen would be consumed.

In sum, Brazil’s reversal on protecting the Amazon does not meaningfully threaten atmospheric oxygen. Even a huge increase in forest fires would produce changes in oxygen that are difficult to measure. There’s enough oxygen in the air to last for millions of years, and the amount is set by geology rather than land use. The fact that this upsurge in deforestation threatens some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich landscapes on Earth is reason enough to oppose it.