Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest hit record levels for the month of February, preliminary government data showed on Friday, as a scientific study indicated the jungle is nearing a tipping point after which it could no longer sustain itself.
Forest clearing in the region totalled 199 square kilometres (77 square miles) for February, up 62% from the same month a year ago, according to data published by national space research agency INPE.
That is the highest level for February since the data series began in 2015/2016 and follows a similar monthly record in January.
In the first two months of the year, destruction was three times higher than in the same period in 2021. About 629 square kilometres (243 square miles) were deforested, an area roughly the size of Chicago.
Brazil is home to around 60% of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, whose preservation is vital to curbing catastrophic climate change because of the vast amount of greenhouse gas it absorbs.
Deforestation in Brazil has surged since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019 and weakened environmental conservation, arguing for more commercial farming and mining in protected areas to help lift the Amazon region out of poverty.
Bolsonaro’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday’s data.
The Environment Ministry said in a statement that the federal government is taking more forceful action against environmental crimes this year, coordinating efforts of environmental, police and defence forces.
Scientists fear the destruction is pushing the Amazon toward a tipping point, after which the jungle would dry out and become a savanna, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas.
A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change earlier this week found that in the last two decades, more than three-quarters of the Amazon has already lost some of its ability to bounce back from disruptions like drought and fire.
“Deforestation and climate change, via increasing dry-season length and drought frequency, may already have pushed the Amazon close to a critical threshold of rainforest dieback,” the authors at the University of Exeter wrote.
The amount of carbon lost by tropical forests each year – which ultimately returns to the atmosphere as climate-warming carbon dioxide – has doubled since the early 2000s, a separate study in the journal Nature Sustainability found last month.
Some scientists suspect deforestation will rise further ahead of Brazil’s October election, as it did in the last three election years. Authorities are likely to enforce environmental laws less rigorously for fear of upsetting voters, said Carlos Souza Jr, a researcher at environmental institute Amazon.