Amazon 1973, Rainforest Clearing, Amazon 1987-8 (Revkin, Porritt 97, Revkin). During burning, the entire planet was obscured and world CO2 emission increased. The same situation pertained in 1997 when half of Brazil was obscured by smoke. This season's peat bog fires in Indonesia are estimated to have contributed as much CO2 as the whole of Western Europe.

The Holocaust of the Green Cathedral
Tropical Deforestation

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Green desert - Amazonian jungle from the air. Eroding soil beside a road in the Amazon
(Wallace, Ayensu 209)

The Emerald Deserts and the Five Levels of Wonderland

Tropical rainforests have been called "green deserts" (Lean 65). Because of the relatively high rainfall, their predominantly clay soils are lean in nutrients. The profusion of vegetation has evolved ingenious life-support systems. Trees and plants send out shallow roots in all directions, soaking up available nutrients from the forest's waste products - fallen leaves, dead trees and rotting organic matter. These also inhibit nitrogen-producing bacteria through the presence of tannins, reducing nitrogen loss to a minimum. Unlike temperate regions, virtually all the nutrient is thus recycled back into the forest canopy, leaving little in the soils.

"So well does the living forest hold onto the scarce nutrients that nothing can release them,
except the destruction of the forest itself" (Carl Jordan - Ayensu 106)

Stripping away the trees causes the exposed soils to deteriorate rapidly, eroded by the torrential rains that can deluge tropical forests with sometimes over 2.5 centimeters of rain in 30 minutes. A single storm can remove up to 185 metric tons of topsoil from one treeless hectare. After the rains cease, the sun bakes the earth into a hard ochre-colored mass. Such "laterization" often renders the exposed soil incapable of supporting any kind of vegetation and can be irreversible. Burning is particularly damaging as most of the nutrients are released into the atmosphere. Gradually some research is going into mulching cut material instead of burning (New Scientist 97).

There are many kinds of tropical forest, depending on climate, rainfall, the underlying substrate and altitude, varying from the sunken forests of the Amazon wet season to the cloud forests of the high altitudes. What makes all of them interesting is their richness in species compared with the forests of temperate zones. There are often only a few of each species of tree and shrub in any one stand, contrasting with the extensive dominance of a few species in temperate forests. Brazil and Colombia each have around 85,000 plant species, while the US and Europe only 12000-15000. They are the most highly developed ecosystems on Earth.

Mature tropical forest has many layers or stories. The uppermost emergent layer consists of trees 100 feet or more in height.These giants form a broken canopy, rarely touching. They get more sunlight and can tolerate wind. Lower down and more continuous, the main canopy is composed of closely-spaced trees with broad or rounded crowns. Next is a story of smaller trees up to 50 feet which can tolerate dimmer light conditions and receive more moisture. At ground level, the air is very still and the light very dim. Only 2% of the sunlight which reaches the canopy penetrates to the forest floor.

The forest is a complex and chaotic climax ecosystem. It is continually changing as a result of storms, weather changes and the fall of trees to create fractal windows and light patches which allow new individuals to break through the canopy. The Amazon has such high biodiversity partly because it has in historical epochs had significant changes to its climate, retreating into forest islands during drier ice ages and re-enveloping to mix the differentiated species in warmer times. What is different about the current attack on the forests is its massive global extent and massive penetration, dividing even the core sanctuaries into small islands. These effects could combine with resulting climatic changes to make the devastation very serious indeed. Increased incidence of El Nino for example carries the precipitation from the east of the Andes to the west, inhibits the Asian monsoon and causes drought in African forests as well. These combined factors could become devastating.

The diversity of tropical forest environments is hinted at by the aerial picture of the winding Amazonian flood plain (previous illustration), the Iguaçu Falls bordering Brazil and Argentina (Ayensu 105) and the Cidodja Springs in Java (Ayensu 112).

The Fall of the Great Forests

The world is witnessing an unprecedented destruction of forests worldwide. Forests in Europe suffer from acid rain and vast swathes of Siberia have come under the axe of multinationals since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In New Zealand, despite some previous extensive burnings by the Maori, modern mechanised agriculture has reduced vast areas to a mere stubble of sometimes eroding grassland. This and huge monoculture plantations of one species, Pinus radiata, now genetically cloned, has reduced what was almost exclusively a densely forested domain to only some 15% of the country in virgin forest.

However it is in the world's great tropical forests where the destruction is most dangerous and where wholesale felling is having the most devastating effect on biodiversity. As noted in the biodiversity pages, the tropical forests harbour the greatest biological diversity of any areas of the planet. It is the destruction of these areas which will limit humanity's future for possibly millions of years to come.

"Over the past five decades, a tragedy of untold proportions has been unfolding in the world's tropical forests. These unique ecosystems, the richest and oldest on earth, are being destroyed at unprecedented rates. All of humanity is affected. Tropical forests regulate water flow and protect watersheds for farmers who grow food for over 1 billion people; they regulate climate and produce oxygen, provide hardwood timber and fuel wood, are home to indigenous people, and harbour untapped genetic resources worth countless billions of dollars" (Lean et. al. 65)

Tropical deforestation in the Americas (Lean 67). Central American deforestation 1950-1985
Coastal mangrove and open pine savanna are excluded (Groombridge).

About half of the mature tropical forests, between 750 to 800 million hectares of the original 1.5 to 1.6 billion hectares that once graced the planet have already been felled. The devastation is already acute in South East Asia, the second of the world's great biodiversity hot spots. Most of what remains is in the Amazon Basin, where the forest covered more than 600 million hectares, an area nearly two thirds the size of the United States.

The forests are being destroyed at an ever-quickening pace. Unless significant measures are taken on a world-wide basis to preserve them, by 2030 there will only be 10% remaining with another 10% in a degraded condition. 80% will have been lost and with them the natural diversity they contain will pass away forever.

Until recently, the best estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization suggested some 11.4 million hectares of tropical forest were being felled each year, but a World Resources Institute survey, published by the World Resources report in 1990 , which for the first time used global satellite observations to build up a global picture revealed that the rate of destruction has increased to between 16.4 and 20.4 million hectares annually, an area about twice the size of Austria. Deforestation shows annual fluctuations, depending on weather and the activities on the ground.. In Brazil; in 1987, a particularly bad year, some 9 million hectares are thought to have been destroyed there, as opposed to almost 5 million hectares in 1988, leading to major hazing of the planet and a significant contribution to world CO2 emissions.

These figures represent only those areas that have been permanently cleared for other uses, but many further millions of hectares are severely degraded each year. Individual countries have shown an even more rapid increase in the rate of destruction. "In Brazil, the annual clearances rose more than fivefold from the 1980 survey to the 1987 figure. In Burma there was a more than sixfold increase, from 105,000 hectares in 1980 to 677,000 in the 1990 report. And in India there is a tenfold difference in the two figures, rising from 147,000 hectares of tropical forest destroyed annually in 1980 to 1.5 million in 1990" (Lean 65).

Many tropical countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, Laos, Nigeria, Liberia, Guinea, Ghana and the Cote d'lvoire have already lost large areas of their rainforest. Eighty per cent of the forests of the Philippine archipelago have already been cut down. "In 1960 Central America still had four fifths of its original forest; now it is left with only two fifths of it. Half of the Brazilian state of Rondonia's 24.3 million hectares have been destroyed or severely degraded in recent years. Here, as in rainforests all over the world, indigenous people are being driven from the land they have lived in - and managed sustainably - for thousands of years." (Lean 65). "Several countries, notably the Philippines, Thailand and India have declared their deforestation a national emergency" (Porritt 34).

"Droughts in West Africa over the past 20 years may have been caused by the destruction of rainforests in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, according to a new study. Further deforestation in the region "could cause the complete collapse of the West African monsoon" (New Scientist Jan 1997). These effects are likely to become global. "As the green band around the equator becomes transformed into a bald ring, there is an increase in 'shininess of the Earth's surface. This will eventually distort convection currents, wind patterns and rainfall regimes" (Myers, Porritt 49).

Left: South-east Asian Tropical Deforestation is particularly severe, despite the region being the second only to the Amazon for biological diversity: (a) India, Sri Lanka Almost all primary rainforest destroyed. (b) Thailand 45% loss between 1961 and 1985. Will lose 60% by 2000. (c) Malaysia Forest resources exhausted by 2000. (d) Indonesia 620,000 hectares / year. (e) Philippines 55% forest loss 1960 - 1985. (f) Bangladesh All primary rainforest destroyed (Lean 67). Right: Sumatra deforestation. (Groombridge)

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Rio's Burning Legacy

Despite the rhetoric at the Rio Biodiversity Convention in 1992, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon, from satellite surveys show a massive increase. Brazil decreed tough new restrictions whose effect remains to be established in response to satellite information indicating a 34% increase from 11,000 sq kilometres/year in 1991 to 14,900 between 1992 and 1994. President Cardoso declared a two year suspension on new mahogany and virola harvesting and increased from 50 to 80% the amount of land ranchers and farmers must leave on their property. Fearnside cautions that these restrictions may not work because Brazil's environmental laws are regularly flouted (New Scientist Aug 1996).

Burning and logging destroyed more rainforest in Brazil in 1995 than in any previous year, according to figures released in 1997 by the country's, National Space Research Institute. The area lost, 29 059 square kilometres, was almost twice the area deforested in 1994. High rainfall reduced the damage in 1996 to 18,161 square kilometres, and the Brazilian government says it expects the 1997 figure to be lower still, at around 13,000 square kilometres (New Scientist Jan 1998).

But observers are sceptical of the claim because of the large number of fires spotted in the Brazilian Amazon by satellite. The US government's NOAA-12 satellite spotted more than 24,000 fires in the Brazilian Amazon between early August and mid-September 1997, the height of the burning season. This is a 28 per cent increase on the previous year, the satellite's first year on fire watch. The blaze has also spread to neighbouring Colombia. The fires, most of which are started by farmers, show up as temperature anomalies in night time data from the satellite's Advanced Very-High Resolution Radiometers (New Scientist Oct 1997).

Fires in the Amazon - aerial evening view (Sagan) Sulawesi burning.
A host of small fires visible from shuttle orbit (National Geographic).

The 1997 season was particularly devastating worldwide as a result of major changes of precipitation driven by El Niño, devastating large areas of Indonesia, the Amazon and Africa. The division of the forest with access roads and open clearings has exacerbated the effects of El Nino by promoting the drying out of the forest by exposing it to wind and sun. Late in 1997, choking smoke from unchecked forest fires blanketed millions of square miles in southeast Asia. But that was not the only part of the world where burning of vegetation caused widespread haze. In the Amazon Basin the 1997 burning season produced a "very thick" pall that extended far beyond the region where smoke has spread in recent years, according to scientists smoke covered half of Brazil in August (New Scientist Dec 1997). "Carbon-dating has found at least four huge burnoffs in the last 2000 years in the Amazon region, the last about 400 years ago, but this year's fires in Roraima fuelled by the most severe drought in 30 years are the worst in recent history. Roraima is a microcosm for the entire Amazon because it contains all types of vegetation endemic to the region in a relatively small area" (NZ Herald Mar 1998).

The global devastation wrought by 1997's El Niño looks set to become a dangerous trend. Global warming will cause a massive "dying-off " of tropical vegetation after 2050, warns a new study. The devastation will mean that the 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide that are currently soaked up by rainforests every year will remain in the atmosphere, further accelerating global warming. The analysis is the most sophisticated study yet carried out into the impact of climate change on vegetation. lt is far more pessimistic than recent forecasts by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New Scientist Dec 97). These trends are exacerbated by tropical deforestation. The peat bog fires of Sumatra are estimated to contribute as much CO2 as the whole of Western Europe. Excessive decaying wood from felling in the Amazon is also estimated to make a major contribution to world methane production, another greenhouse gas.

Amazonian fires from the ground (New Scientist Oct, Dec 97)

Logging, Multinationals and the Asian Invasion of the Amazon

A major source of deforestation particularly in Asia has been the logging industry, driven spectacularly by Japan, which has almost single-handedly financed the destruction of the great rain forests of South-East Asia, often using prize virgin hard woods for disposable concrete moulding in the building industry. Such rape is made easy by the financial inequities between developed and developing nations.

A major new concern is now emerging with the exhaustion of the Asian forests, the convergence of major world and particularly Asian logging companies on the remaining areas of tropical forest, particularly the Amazon. Without international vigilance, there is a real risk that the disaster which has been wreaked on the South-East Asian forests will be repeated even more rapidly on the Amazon by the very same organization seeking further fields for their exploitation.

Asian logging companies are moving into South America: Guyana, Surinam, and now the big prize, the Amazon rainforest. Large parts of still intact forest in remote areas where government agencies are weak and unmotivated. Africa is out of the question because of political instability, so the solution is Brazil's Amazon rainforest with one-third of the world's existing timber supplies. The forest contains 60 billion cubic metres of timber, said to be worth $4 trillion. By 2006, Brazil's share of the world market is expected to leap to 20 per cent.

Left principal routes of tropical timber trade show Japan as the principal destroyer of Asian forests and forests generally. Japan has used fine virgin tropical hardwood simply for concrete mouldings in building construction. Right ten top tropical timber producers (million cubic metres 1987) In red is fuel wood use, green is timber production (Lean 71)

In Guyana, Malaysian companies have obtained government concessions to vast forest areas, and timber production multiplied fivefold between 1991 and 1996, forcing the government to decree a three-year moratorium on new concessions until environmental laws can be tightened. In Brazil, the Asians have begun buying up local timber companies, often keeping their own names. WTK of Malaysia paid $7 million for Amaplac in January 1997, and also bought 300,000 hectares of forest near the Jurua river, an Amazon tributary, for around $2.4 million. Total WTK investment in timber is reported to be $18 million. Samling, another Malaysian giant, is negotiating to buy Amacol. Compensa, a local timber firm, now belongs to China's Tianjin Fortune Timber Company (Guardian Weekly 19 Jan 97).

Sept 1997 Daytime satellite map shows haze and site of fires emphasized at foot of Sumatra (NZ Herald). A million hectares was destroyed over the ensuing weeks. The head of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Dr. Syed Babar Ali, called it an international catastrophe.
This burning is an intentional opportunity coinciding with drought from El Niño.

Principal Causes of Destruction

Tropical forests come in two varieties: wet and dry. Both are under threat. The worst destruction is occurring in the wet ones. Latin America has lost 37 per cent, Asia 42 per cent and Africa 52 per cent of their original tropical moist forests.

Debate continues over sustainable forestry. Proposals have been made to sustainably manage tropical forests including foresting a selected diversity of species and replacing each. But the policy has been criticized as leading to worse devastation than selective removal of fine hardwoods, such as mahogany.

Three steps to destruction:

  1. Indiscriminate logging, long thought to be the main reason for deforestation, now takes second place to:
  2. Shifting cultivation by landless forest farmers - estimated to be about 150 million worldwide
  3. Conversion of forest to agricultural plots, plantations and pasture land.

Tropical rainforest eradication is often a three-stage process:

  1. Logging companies carve out concessions and bulldoze access roads into pristine rainforest to extract timber. Major trees are felled outright often with much destruction to surrounding vegetation. This road development is sometimes accelerated by ill-conceived development grants from agencies such as the World Bank and by other projects such as oil exploration.. In countries, such as Indonesia, large firms are given major tax concessions.
  2. Peasant families follow the roads into the jungle in a desperate search for land and livelihood. They clear the forest to grow subsistence crops, cutting down all the trees and burning them and using the ashes as fertilizer. After just three or four harvests, insect plagues, weeds and soil impoverishment force them to move on and repeat the cycle in undisturbed areas.
  3. Some seed the plots with grass and sell them to cattle ranchers, who then complete the third and final stage of destruction. In Central America, millions of hectares of forest have been destroyed to provide cheap beef for US hamburgers. In some cases, the forest is cleared away to make room for large plantations to supply rich countries with strawberries, eggplants, peppers, pineapples, bananas, sugar, groundnuts, palm kernels and cotton. "Barbados, for example, replaced forests with sugar cane, and in Malaysia tropical forests have been virtually exhausted, disappearing at the rate of 255,600 hectares a year, to make room for new rubber and oil palm plantations" (Lean 65). "The European Community imports millions of tonnes of calorie-rich cassava from Thailand each year to be fed to the excessively large number of cattle, pigs and poultry in Europe. The cassava is grown on Thai croplands that have been established on deforested land. The 'cassava connection' parallels the hamburger connection" (Myers - Porritt 50).

Rain Forest Fragmentation and Genetic Genocide

Forest clearing rapidly reduces continuous stretches of forest to a collection of smaller islands. The forest is reduced from dimension 2 gradually to an archipelago of islands of different sizes with fractal dimension tending to 0. As areas of forest are reduced to ever smaller pockets, the species diversity in each fragment collapses. The effect on particular species is highly selective. Some species such as frogs which can exist as well in surrounding land may survive, while the vast majority of ranging insect-eating bird species disappear. Some species such as capuchin monkeys army ants and the birds which follow them cannot survive except in a wide contiguous area. Even plots as large as 100 hectares are useless for supporting such species. Many plant species are adapted to growing conditions and methods of dissemination which cease to exist and will slowly die out (Life on the Edge - New Scientist Amazon Issue 1996-7).

Tropical forests, despite covering only 6% of the Earth are home to 30% to 90% of Earth's species (Lean 135)

Plants, fungi and animals vanish with the disappearing forests. A 1,000-hectare patch of tropical moist forest contains as many as 1,500 species of flowering plants, up to 750 species of tree, 400 bird species, 150 kinds of butterflies, 100 different types of reptile and 60 species of amphibians; the insects are too numerous to count. Panama has as many plant species as the whole of Europe and in peninsular Malaysia there are more tree species than the whole of the US. Peninsular Malaysia has 7,900 species of flowering plants; the UK, which is twice the size, contains only 1,430. A single volcano in the Philippines, Mount Makiliang, is home to more types of woody plant than the entire United States. A single bush in Peru may harbour more ant species than the whole British Isles.

Worldwide distribution of Tropical Forests shows how little of the world's surface they cover and thus how essential and precious their rich biodiversity resources are (Lean 66) Although the world distribution of temperate forests is more extensive than tropical rainforest, their species diversity is much smaller. Nevertheless temperate forests are likewise under threat, both from wholesale felling as in Siberia since the opening of Russia to multi-national exploitation and from acid rain and defoliation as in Europe (Lean 82).

Mature tropical rainforests cover only about 7 per cent of the earth's surface, but harbour a third to ninety percent of all its species, depending on the group considered, most of them as yet undiscovered. Clearing them is driving millions of species to extinction.

The loss of even one species diminishes the whole of humanity, for it is a storehouse of genetic resources. All civilizations have been built on the diversity of nature. Agricultural crops and domesticated livestock were first developed from the wild, and we are still dependent on it for food, medicines and industrial raw materials. Crop breeders rely on wild strains to improve domesticated varieties and safeguard them against disease. Up to half of all the medicines prescribed worldwide are originally derived from wild products. "The US National Cancer Institute has identified more than 2,000 tropical rainforest plants with the potential to fight cancer. Miracle substances wait in the rainforest to be discovered, and are being destroyed as we wait" (Lean 68).

A Case: The Black Cayman
Cayman densities in Brazil are now only a tenth of those found in Venezuela's rivers. Black cayman in particular have vanished from 41 of 47 habitats in which they previously thrived. The few that were found were emaciated, algae-covered, infected with parasites and more pertinently contained lead levels up to 168 times that regarded as safe for human consumption. This probably results from run-off from gold prospecting. Mercury, which is also a major pollutant from gold-mining is only beginning to be assessed (New Scientist 2 Nov 1996 9).

The cayman is also an example of how the contraband trade in skins undermines "sustainable utilization" and fails to sustain species because the covert market turns the sustainable cull into a slaughter. Stuart Levy notes (The Caiman Trade Scientific American Mar 98 52) "As pressure to open up trade in all crocodilian species increases, ... aside from animals kept on commercial farms and ranches, South and Central America's wild caimans may well be on their way to becoming a true relic - the side of a purse displayed in a museum."

Finding a Sustainable Way of Forest Management

In recent years, saving what remains of the world's rainforests has become an international cause. Governments, international organizations and citizens groups are paying it increasing attention. However, despite this the forests are still burning and being felled. Many initiatives have been launched including action plans, and debt-swap deals under which countries protect particular rainforest areas in return for alleviation of some of their foreign debt.

No plan to save the rainforests will succeed unless it takes into account the people in the rainforest countries and how they will achieve their livelihood. Third World nations, deep in financial crisis, have little interest in saving the rainforest unless they can be shown that it also makes economic sense.

Traditional non-destructive uses of the rainforest, such as tapping rubber, agroforestry and the collection of products from diverse species for food and medicine can achieve much higher economic returns than logging and particularly cattle ranching. Shifting subsistence agriculture or 'slash and burn' has a mixed record. Often decried for its apparent destructiveness, affecting up to 75,000 square miles annually, traditional slash and burn is better than exotic plantations because it better promotes the regeneration of biodiversity by facilitating diverse regrowth of native species from seed.

"The Lacandon Maya Indians of Chiapas, Mexico, for example, practise a highly efficient form of traditional agroforestry, using a multi-layered cropping system which permits them to cultivate up to 75 crop species on single hectare plots for up to seven consecutive years. With skilled husbandry of the forest's resources, one farmer will clear no more than 10 hectares of rainforest during his lifetime" (Lean 68). Many other traditional peoples practise similar systems throughout many of the world's rainforest areas. They are much more productive than the cultivation that destroys the forests, and it allows people to stay on their land without having to move on. It abates the land hunger which forces people into the forest and offers those who do settle there a sustainable way to farm in harmony with their environment.

Replanting the moist tropics could show some promise of helping to offset some of the effects of global warming, but this requires some commitment to forests which also contribute to biodiversity. Currently trends are in precisely the opposite direction. Indonesia is currently planning to plant 250,000 hectares a year in genetically cloned teak, which would have zero diversity. It remains to be seen where the next round of such genetically-engineered specimens will come from if the basic resource of diversity is discarded for cloned plantations (New Scientist Aug 97). It would be better for the industrialized nations to fund the planting of genetically diverse forest which could also preserve the heritage of genetic diversity.

There is also an urgent need to head off the need for fuel wood among many less rich populations which causes not only deforestation but erosion and desertification in many parts of the world, by planting sufficient resources of rapidly growing fuel wood species to alleviate the pressure on wilderness and virgin forest.

Ultimately it may be possible for man to live with nature in the great rain forests and to do so utilizing the abundance of the forest for a diversity of high value products in addition to immediate sources of sustenance and in turn safeguarding it in its diversity, but only if there is a change of heart and a preparedness to restrain the rapid exploitation that comes with multinational development concessions. As Duncan Poore comments: "We need a fundamental change in attitude from those with the power and the money. Currently many such people view tropical deforestation as a positive step towards providing food, living room, and fuel for millions of poor people. At the same time some of these see the forest as a source of instant revenue, providing vital foreign exchange. Rather the long-term profit lies in proper of the forest as a capital reserve , with re-afforestation as an investment for the future. ... The time is ripe for a change from exploitation to resource building" (Ayensu 117).

"Now we arrive at perhaps the most delicate and sensitive conservation message in the whole book. Tropical countries have sovereignty over their forest resources and clearly intend to use these resources to their own benefit and as they see that benefit. They do not take kindly to being reminded by outsiders that much of their forested land is a world heritage, especially when that point is most often put forward by the rich nations club, especially Europe and North America - most of whose agricultural development has been on previously forested land. Yet all too often this sovereignty is ceded to those very outsiders for short-term gain. ... While many of the countries which possess tropical forests are beginning to share concern at the effects of deforestation, they are slow at cooperating in action to tackle its causes. We would all be well advised to cooperate in providing the scientific information necessary to allow national forest strategies to be developed - strategies that will involve all the users of the forest. ... And a vast increase in the amount of international aid must be applied if we are going to solve these problems. Forests are for the people. Let us save them for the people." (Ayensu 117).

Importance of Tropical Forests to Human and Biological Diversity

Medical benefits from tropical forest plants

Lead Articles:

The Tree of Life - Ombu (Porritt 114)

"The more developed nations are poisoning the Earth's land, water and air, and destroying the resources of the Third World. I denounce the antagonism between nature and civilization, and look forward to the Union of Latin Americans by the waters of their rivers - though not within the limits set by man - An entire continent united by nature." (Porritt 114)

Part 3: The Eye of Hathor: Destabilization of the Planets Atmosphere, Oceans and Biosphere.

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