The Amazon rain forest is burning — news that prompted shock and fear across the world as Brazil’s space research agency reported this week that a record number of fires have broken out in the forest this year.
The burning Amazon was featured on the cover of TIME in 1989, with an accompanying piece detailing the impact of fires that were set by farmers and cattle ranchers as part of an annual ritual to clear land for crops and livestock. The fires in the forest now are also man-made, and deforestation can bring on other factors that can lead to them spreading faster, according to Lawrence. “When you put a fire near a forest, the edges get some of that heat,” she says. “They experience the fire to a modest degree, which makes them susceptible to future fires.”
TIME warned back then of the risks to the Amazon’s indigenous inhabitants, as well as various plant and animal species, if the Amazon were lost or significantly damaged:
It would be an incalculable catastrophe for the entire planet. Moist tropical forests are distinguished by their canopies of interlocking leaves and branches that shelter creatures below from sun and wind, and by their incredible variety of animal and plant life. If the forests vanish, so will more than 1 million species—a significant part of earth’s biological diversity and genetic heritage. Moreover, the burning of the Amazon could have dramatic effects on global weather patterns—for example, heightening the warming trend that may result from the greenhouse effect … the Amazon region stores at least 75 billion tons of carbon in its trees, which when burned spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since the air is already dangerously overburdened by carbon dioxide from the cars and factories of industrial nations, the torching of the Amazon could magnify the greenhouse effect … No one knows just what impact the buildup of CO2 will have, but some scientists fear that the globe will begin to warm up, bringing on wrenching climate changes.
Today, those risks remain unchanged — but the climate change that TIME in the 1980s warned might be possible has already come to pass, and the damage it causes is starkly plain.