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The Amazon Rainforest - How the Earth Got It's Lungs

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The Amazon Rainforest - How the Earth Got It's Lungs


The Amazon FireShtick

The Amazon Rainforest has been all over the news lately. Last week, about 7,000 square miles of the forest were in flames. That number may be lost in context, so imagine Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (Ajax, Brampton, Burlington, Markham, Mississauga, Newmarket, Oakville, Oshawa, Pickering, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, & Whitby) being set on fire, and you wouldn’t even have half of what has been burned in the Amazon Rainforest.

That’s a lot.

However, it’s not unprecedented/ As you can see from this graph from National Geographic, we aren’t at a historical high for the Amazon Rainforest fires, but does that mean we shouldn’t be concerned?

 


The Amazon rainforest does help the world breathe, but all of the oxygen that it produces gets used by the life within the rainforest itself. It actually provides enough oxygen for more than 20x the human population, and while not a breath of that oxygen leaves the rainforest, it creates an amazing biosphere to allow us to keep on living our oxygen enriching lives. 

The Amazon is amazing. It is slightly smaller than the continental United States and is home to some of our favourite plants that we find in our own homes. But have you ever stopped to wonder how the Amazon became the Amazon?

So, How Did the Amazon, Become the Amazon?

Have you ever heard of the land called Gondwana? If you didn’t, it’s O.K. because it broke up around 180 million years ago, but it used to be this super landmass that consisted of Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula. If you’ve ever heard of Pangea, just think of it as Pangea’s lower half.

It broke up because of this thing called Plate Tectonics, and here’s a 20 second refresher from high school science class on plate tectonics just so we’re all up to speed:

Ever seen ice on a frozen lake? Similar idea.

The crust of the Earth is, more or less, just where it is so cold that the molten rock has gotten a chance to freeze over. This crust of frozen rock (as in it is now solid again instead of flowing around like it does further down) helps insulate the interior of the Earth.

Thin layer of solid rock up on top where it is cold. A lot of hot molten stuff below. The further down you go, the hotter it gets.

Hot things tend to expand and become less dense than when they are cold. This means that molten rock near the core of the Earth gets really hot and floats up towards the solid rock crust. There it cools off again and, eventually, drops.

This means there is a current. Much like the ocean. Except these currents move really slowly. Rock is a lot denser than water and it takes a lot longer for the flow to happen… 

The crust, that is the solid part near the surface, is being pulled and pushed in different directions as this hot current moves underneath it and tries to drag the solid part along with it. This means that the crust of the Earth is separated into several huge plates and they are bumping into each other. 

ELI5: Can someone explain tectonic plates and what they physically are and what they do?


Cool, so that’s plate tectonics. At one time the Earth was one giant plate tectonic, then two, now there are seven. It’s super interesting.

Anyways, somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifteen million years ago, two plate tectonics collided. One of them was called the Nazca plate (modern day Peru and Chile) and the other was called the South American plate (modern day Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay). When these two plates collided, there was only one place for the land to go: up.

So it formed this huge mountain range in South America known as the Andes. Before this collision, the Amazon was basically just a giant lake had a river that used to flow westward, directly into the (now) Pacific Ocean, but now since that mountain range got in the way, the water way was blocked.

With nowhere for the water to go, it caused the Amazon to become a huge inland sea. Over time this inland sea became a massive swampy, freshwater lake.

Think of the humidity!

The water flow was now restricted by a giant mountain range, and mountain ranges produce a lot of water run-off themselves. So all this water wanted to move somewhere. About ten million years ago, waters formed their own path, working through the sandstone to the west and the Amazon began to flow eastward towards the Atlantic ocean. As the water began to spread, so did life. Trees, insects, animals, plants, fertilized soil all followed the water down its path. Because of this, the Amazon rainforest was born.

So what happened to that huge Amazon lake? All I hear about is the Amazon river nowadays. Well, during the Ice Age, sea levels dropped and the great Amazon lake rapidly drained and became a river. A quick three million years later, the ocean level receded enough to expose Central America and allow mass migration of mammal species between the Americas.

TL;DR

So basically, the Amazon was a giant lake and had rivers that flowed westward into the Pacific. Then, a huge mountain range formed because of plate tectonics, so there was no path for the water to flow and there was all this excess water from the mountains. So, water took the path of least resistance and started to carve out it’s way to the east. As it went eastward, the land started to become for fertile because of the water flow, so a bunch of life followed. 

The Amazon Is Everywhere

We have a bunch of amazing house plants that come from the Amazon, and if it wasn’t for over 180 million years of history, we may never have known such beauties as:

  • The Fiddle Leaf Fig (Ficus Lyrata)
  • Monstera Deliciosa (Monstera)
  • Staghorn Fern (Platycerium Superbum)
  • Snake Plant (Sansevieria Trifasciata)
  • Air Plants (Tillandsia)
  • Rattlesnake Plant (Calathea Lancifolia)
  • And many… many more… roughly 40,000 more.

While it may not be historically significant what is happening with the Amazon Rainforest in terms of the amount of fires that are happening, it is still incredibly important to care for this amazing, oxygen enriching, plant producing part of the world.

We only have one, and we should be doing everything in our power to make sure we’re taking care of it. 

Thom Malone,
Co-Founder, Sharebloom

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