Say the word “rainforest”, and, unless you live in another one of the other global rainforests, you’re likely to think of this one. By far, the Amazon rainforest is the largest rainforest and the most biodiverse place on Earth, which are a couple of the reasons why many have watched footage and read articles in horror as the mostly Brazilian region has experienced some of the most destructive wildfires in more than a decade. Still, for all of mystique, allure, and diverse elements of the Amazon rainforest, to many people, it usually remains simply a name for a place that conjures up typical jungle imagery. So, let’s take this opportunity to learn a bit more about the Amazon rainforest and separate fact from fiction.
Beginning with the base term, rainforest is a loan-translation of the German Regenwald, which was created by A.F.W. Schimper for his 1898 work “Pflanzengeographie.” Whether German or English, the base term is a compounding of the words rain, from the Old High German regen, and forest (or wald, for that matter), coming initially from the Old High German forst, which is derived from the Latin foris, meaning ‘the woodland beyond the main known area.’
Scientifically speaking, rainforest are forests that receive an abnormal high amount of rain, typically more than 1800mm/70”, and, in the case of tropical rainforests like the Amazon, have a hot, humid climate year-round.
Aside from the base term, what makes it specifically “Amazon” harkens back to the first contact the locals made with Europeans. Exploring up what was originally known as the Marañón, the expedition of 16th century Spanish explorer and conquistador Francisco de Orellana encountered Pira-tapuya warriors who were being led by women. Knowing his Greek mythology, these “warrior women” reminded Orellana of the Amazons described by Herodotus and Diodorus, which influenced him to rename the Marañón as Rio Amazonas (“River of the Amazons”). As for the land surrounding the river, it became known as Amazonas, which in English became Amazonia, the predecessor to our word, Amazon.
In English usage, it may be surprising that the word for the geographic “Amazon” is actually older than the term “rainforest”. Translating A. F. W. Schimper’s work, William Rogers Fisher, in the 1903 work, Plant-geography upon a physiological basis, writes: “The Rain-forest is evergreen, hygrophilous in character, at least thirty meters high, but usually much taller.” Little more than a decade later, expanding upon the notion of a rainforest as being relative to precipitation more than climate, one of the Publications of the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1914 notes how: “The rate of growth in the montane rain-forest region is much slower than it is in the vegetation of the lowlands.” Nevertheless, predating these usages by almost a century, the first understood writing referring to the Amazon (aka Amazonia, at the time) dates to August of 1814, when the Philadelphia literary and political magazine, The Port Folio, referred to: “The action of a vertical sun on the winterless plains of Brazil or Amazonia.”
Beyond the term itself, there are many facts worth noting about the Amazon.
- Though some numbers may touch on the biodiversity there, such as 2.5 million insect species, 20% (approx.) of all bird species and 20% (approx.) of fish species live in the Amazon, the truth is that we really don’t know about everything that’s there – it’s simply too big, too varied, and too dangerous to explore it all; moreover, there are still people there that we don’t know about: estimates range from 50 to 70 or more tribes living in the Amazon rainforest that remain not contacted by the outside world.
- Though it’s called a “rainforest”, the Amazon does have a dry season. As could be imagined, it is typically during this dry season that the majority of fires occur, with a number of the fires being the result of uncontrolled and illegal land-clearing activities. While the reporting and imagery of the current crisis may appear unprecedented, the actual fires are nothing new: with the drought of 2003, for example, the actual number of fires was greater in Brazil’s Amazon Region.
- Finally, according to Yadvinder Singh Malhi, the Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford, the Amazon doesn’t provide 20% of the planet’s oxygen. Considering all ecosystems on land and water, the Amazon produces about 9% of the planet’s oxygen; however, when subtracting local plant respiration and oxygen used in breaking down dead matter, the Amazon rainforest uses almost as much oxygen as it produces.
Truly, much like those warriors first mentioned by Herodotus, the Amazon is a foreign and fascinating place. Though many of us can do little to actually fight the fires or attempt to influence Latin American domestic policy, this unfortunate devastation is still difficult to witness. Hopefully, by learning more and educating ourselves, we can gain a better understanding of the ecosystem and become better stewards.