Amazon Losing "Flying Rivers," Ability to Curb Warming

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The project's goal has been to figure out where the water comes from and then map how wind currents carry water across the vast Amazon Basin.

For instance, Salati's research in the 1980s showed that more than half of the Amazon's rainfall emanates from trees, with the rest coming from vapor from surface water bodies.

Moss recently completed a seven-day research trip along the trajectory of one flying river that ends in the city of Sao Paulo. Those results showed that the wet air current flowed at 1,990 miles (3,200 kilometers) a second—about as fast as a major river.

The Brazilian rain forest's moisture is important for sustaining South American rainfall, especially the winter monsoons, noted Helene Muri, of the Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

"So if the trees are chopped down, the rainfall rates could be reduced through this mechanism," Muri said by email.

Any changes in vegetation can impact the local "water budget" and create drought conditions that impact agriculture and industry, she added.

Withering Economy

Brazil's economy may wither if the flying rivers dry out, project founder Moss said.

Farmers in the Amazon's fertile Matto Grosso state are highly dependent on Amazon rain to grow their crops, for example. The agriculture industry in the region is extremely profitable because so little irrigation is needed.

"Rainwater has been taken for granted ... ," Moss said.

"In addition, 80 percent of Brazil's energy is related to hydroelectric power, so every single drop of rain counts," Moss said. "If we start losing rain, it will have a huge impact [on our energy]."

But Moss added that the need to preserve rain forests has percolated into the public consciousness in Brazil.

"More people are realizing," he said, "that the well-being of many people in the southern parts [of Brazil] is related to every tree in the Amazon."

The Flying Rivers Project is funded by the National Water Regulatory Agency (ANA) and by Petrobras, an oil company in Brazil.

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