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Forest degradation makes Amazon vulnerable to mega-fires

Smoke billows from the Amazon Rainforest. Photo: Dado Galdieri / AP

This year is on track to be the worst on record for forest fires in the Amazon, per the Brazilian government. The fires are doing the most damage in the areas of the forest already hit by human-caused forest degradation, Mongabay reports.

  • Distinct from deforestation, forest degradation is the process of felling just the valuable trees in a forest and leaving behind flammable tree limbs and debris, creating a ground zero for wildfires.
  • Why it matters: Climate change, deforestation and forest degradation are causing mega-fires that are devastating large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Carbon emissions from the fires have the capacity to impact climate around the world.

The details:

  • The Amazon is currently experiencing a prolonged drought — lasting up to four months in some parts — which is contributing to the spread of the fires. And "the dry seasons in Brazil seem to be becoming drier and more frequent," scientist Luiz Aragão told Mongabay.
  • As of October 5, 208,278 hot spots have been seen in the region using thermal sensing. Fire brigades lack the manpower and resources to control them.
  • Forest degradation has transformed the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Meanwhile, the uptick of carbon emissions around the world are contributing to bigger fires globally. The concurrent trends comprise a recipe for more mega-fires, scientists say.
  • "If Brazil is to have a chance at controlling the intensity of fires in the Amazon, it needs all countries — including the U.S. — to successfully reduce carbon emissions," Mongabay reports.
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Early humans innovated tools earlier than thought

Archaeologist Rick Potts squats in the Olorgesailie Basin in Kenya with various surprisingly sophisticated tools found from 320,000 years ago.
Richard Potts surveys assortment of Early Stone Age handaxes discovered in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. Photo: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Unpredictable climate and natural disasters like earthquakes may have spurred early humans to create innovative tools and ways to communicate earlier than previously thought, according to 3 studies published Thursday in Science.

What they found: Evidence that around 320,000 years ago — near the start of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown — early humans in East Africa may have created projectile hunting tools, developed ways to communicate using colors for mapping or identification purposes, and traveled longer distances to trade, hunt or obtain valuable materials.

"It's not just humans changing but really the entire ecosystem. It's a picture that's bigger than just the human ancestors themselves."
— Smithsonian's Richard Potts, who spearheaded the studies
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Yejin Choi: Trying to give AI some common sense

A photo of Yejin Choi from the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
Photo illustration: Axios Visuals

Artificial intelligence researchers have tried unsuccessfully for decades to give machines the common sense needed to converse with humans and seamlessly navigate our always-changing world. Last month, Paul Allen announced he is investing another $125 million into his Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in a renewed effort to solve one of the field's grand challenges.

Axios spoke with Yejin Choi, an AI researcher from the University of Washington and AI2 who studies how machines process and generate language. She talked about how they're defining common sense, their approach to the problem and how it's connected to bias.