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Editor’s Note: This story is the second part in a series. Please read part 1, part 3, and part 4 for a more complete picture of Amazon deforestation.
For as long as people have inhabited the Amazon rainforest, they have left a mark on the landscape. But never have humans changed the rainforest as dramatically as they have in recent decades.
Since the 1970s, satellites have observed multiple waves of clearcutting as they have spread across the southern Amazon. With fire, chainsaw, axe, and heavy machinery, people have cleared more than a sixth of the forest that once existed. In parts of the Amazon where forests still stand, thinning canopies hint at significant degradation due to logging, drought stress, and understory fire activity.
Satellites have provided scientists with unparalleled views of these changes. In addition to simply tallying how much forest has been cut, scientists have deciphered much about how deforestation has unfolded over four decades. One of the themes that emerges is just how dynamic deforestation has been.
“It is not a uniform process by any means,” said Eugenio Arima, a land system scientist from the University of Texas at Austin. “If you look at deforestation patterns carefully, you can see the fingerprints of economic and institutional history etched into some parts of the landscape.”
One of the best tools for reading the long-term rhythms of deforestation has been the Landsat program. With seven successive satellites, Landsat has taken a snapshot of every part of the Amazon rainforest every two weeks for 47 years, creating the world’s longest, most consistent record of change in the region. Most Landsat satellites have collected 30-meter images, with each pixel representing an area about the size of a baseball field—enough to detect even relatively small clearings and fires. Poring through these many thousands of images of the Amazon, scientists have used the data to analyze everything from how roads have spread, to how the size of cleared parcels has changed, to how deforestation has altered the water cycle.
In the 2000s, Arima was one of many Brazilian scientists who launched a career by studying deforestation as part of the Large-scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA). This NASA campaign examined how Amazon ecosystems were interconnected and how they were reacting to rapid deforestation, global warming, and cycles of drought. One of Arima’s projects, conducted with Robert Walker of the University of Florida, involved using Landsat to map roads and deforestation patterns, piecing together how those patterns related to what was happening on the ground.
December 15, 2000JPEG
January 19, 2017JPEG
In Peru, Colombia, and other Amazon countries, deforestation has tended to follow rivers, which are often the main transportation routes to remote parts of the rainforest. Prior to the 1970s, Arima explained, this was the case for Brazil as well. (Brazil holds about 60 percent of all the Amazon rainforest within its borders.)
By the 1970s, that began to change dramatically, as forest clearing spread from federal highways in a way that Arima and other scholars call a “fishbone pattern.” The pattern was the product of a major infrastructure and settlement initiative launched by the Brazilian government to develop the rainforest. It was partly an attempt to secure the nation’s borders and stimulate the economy, but it also aimed to provide land and a better life for people living in poverty in the crowded cities of northeastern Brazil. The government unveiled this ambitious road-building and development plan as hundreds of thousands of people were at risk of famine from a severe drought.
“Families were typically given 100 hectares of land and told they could clear 50 percent of it,” explained NASA forest ecologist Douglas Morton. “People would go out with axes or chainsaws and clear a few hectares by hand each year to grow subsistence crops.” However, a few dozen hectares was not enough for most families, given the marginal soil in many areas, and most settlers ended up clearing more than 50 percent or abandoning their small farms for nearby cities.
The highways and 100-hectare plots led to an unmistakable orthogonal pattern on the landscape. The fishbones became particularly common in northern Para state, growing out from Altimira, Uruará, Rurópolis, and other towns along the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Secondary roads, or travessões, were often built perpendicular to the main arteries, and deforestation spread outward in an ordered way as authorities handed out parcels to new settlers.
While thousands of poor families did move into the rainforest in the 1970s, the large-scale, government-run settlement programs did not last. Within a few years, volatile oil prices triggered a recession that caused authorities to scale back support for settlement programs and to look for other ways to stimulate economic growth and develop the Amazon. The focus shifted to loan programs, tax breaks, and other incentives that encouraged wealthy financiers, often from southern Brazil, to invest in large-scale cattle ranching and soy farming operations.
“The style of deforestation changed as official settlement programs wound down,” said Morton. “In the past three decades, it has no longer been families with axes. We’re talking about well-capitalized landowners clearing forests with tractors connected by chains with links as thick as my arm. They would literally rip down the forest, roots and all, to make room for industrial-scale operations.”
June 14, 2013 - June 12, 2018GIF
It was a change that became visible from space. As a more laissez-faire, free-market approach took hold, deforested plots tended to become larger and blockier, spreading in less linear ways. The plots made available to cattle investors often spanned thousands of hectares, and successful ranchers also bought smaller parcels and consolidated them into larger ones.
The images above show an example of this more modern large-scale deforestation process playing out in a rough-and-tumble ranching area in a remote part of northern Para, on the western outskirts of the town of Sao Felix de Xingu. Click on the GIF download below the image to see the sequence animated.
After forests are cut, the downed trees and brush are typically left to dry out for a few months or even years, appearing to satellite imagers as a change in the “greenness” of the canopy. This visual clue grows more pronounced over time. When the dry season arrives, fires start springing up in these cleared areas. Often there is so much wood to burn that satellites detect fires over multiple dry days, or even multiple years.
“When fires are unusually large, persistent, and along the forest edge, they are quite likely deforestation fires,” explained Morton. After the smoke has cleared and all the wood turned to ash, people typically spread grass seed and establish pastures for cattle. Today, roughly three quarters of the deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon—some estimates put the number even higher—is used for cattle pasture, with the bulk of it managed by large landowners.
Where the land is flat and well-drained, a distinctive rectangular deforestation pattern—associated with farming—often emerges. In the state of Mato Grosso, for instance, private agricultural cooperatives took a leading role and parceled out large lots to soybean farmers (see lower right of the first image).
“Parts of Mato Grosso feel like you’re in the middle of Iowa—huge fields, straight roads, and completely mechanized operations,” said Matt Hansen, a remote sensing scientist at the University of Maryland. Such landscapes have turned Brazil into the world’s largest exporter of soy, most of which now gets shipped to China.
The transition between the government-directed settlements of the 1970s and the free-market development patterns that followed is particularly pronounced around Itaituba, a town along the Tapajos River in Para. The area was originally targeted for federal colonization, which gave rise to fishbone deforestation south of the river (upper left of first image).
But when the government withdrew financial support, a power vacuum led to a free-for-all north of the river (upper right of first image). Loggers, land grabbers, small farmers, and ranchers all competed for new territory as they followed old logging roads that radiated outward from the town. As loggers and miners pushed into undeveloped parts of the forest, they built roads that generally followed the natural contours of the land and formed curving, dendritic shapes (lower left of first image).
July 4, 2000 - July 16, 2019
The sequence of natural-color Landsat images above highlights deforestation playing out between 2000-2019 around BR-163, a key highway in Para first built in 1976 but only completely paved in 2019. It links soy-growing areas in the southern Amazon rainforest with an ocean-going port on the Amazon River.
“It is an interesting area because the regional economy was fueled by a gold rush in the 1980s,” explained Arima, noting that the main mining areas are along streams west of the highway. People who got wealthy from gold typically invested in ranching, which caused deforested areas to spread quickly near the highway.
One of the key things to understand about deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, Arima noted, is that a large fraction of the rainforest is unclaimed, state-owned land, or terras devolutas. Since Brazilian law permits people to claim this land if they occupy it for a year and 'improve' it (which usually means clearing it), there has long been a flow of squatters, land speculators, and others willing to head to the frontier.
As long as there are people who need to make a living or a profit and unprotected land is readily available for claiming, the waves of deforestation will likely continue to wash across the world's largest rainforest. “But because of satellites, it won’t go unnoticed,” said Arima. “Scientists, resource managers—anybody really—will easily be able to see exactly where and how the forests are changing.”
NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview and Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland.
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Check out our YouTube video showing the history of the Amazon.com website! It has all the images and captions from this page, and is easy on the eyes.
Early Stage Amazon (1994-1995)
In 1994, Jeff Bezos witnessed the exponential growth of the World Wide Web and saw an opportunity to realize online commerce. Initially named Cadabra, Bezos changed the name when his attorney convinced him that it sounded too much like Cadaver. Bezos also considered the name Relentless for a while before opting for Amazon, which reflected the ideas of grandiosity and abundance. The company was founded on July 5th, 1994.
Original Amazon Website (1995)
Amazon.com was launched in July 1995. The logo was an abstract letter 'A' with a winding river flowing through it and the words Amazon.com, Earth’s biggest bookstore at the bottom. The color scheme of the site was typical for 1995 -- lots of gray and not terribly vibrant.
The company offered more than 1 million book titles, vastly outpacing any competition at the time. It featured a simple search engine to help find relevant books. Amazon also offered a free subscription to its personal notification service called 'Eyes and Editors,' enabling clients to proclaim their favorite authors and books. Whenever a new book of interest was added to the catalog, Amazon would automatically send the customer an email announcing the addition. Additionally, Amazon allowed clients to comment on books and exchange ideas with people around the world using review pages.
The original Amazon website (August 1995)
Source: Restored by Taran Van Hemert
TV Interview Footage (1997)
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos conducted many interviews in the early years, but this one in 1997 with KIRO 7 Seattle is notable because it had footage of the website at the time. The quality is poor, but still valuable to see Amazon in it's infancy. The computer in the closeup shots of the website appears to be an Apple Powerbook 1400, but the PC brand on Bezos' desk is unclear.
The first image below makes light of Amazon's massive collection of more than one million books. Amazon's Book of the Day link boasts 'a different title every day for the next 3,000 years.'
Amazon.com Homepage on TV broadcast (1997)
Source: KIRO 7 News
Amazon.com Search by Title, Author, or Subject (1997)
Source: KIRO 7 News
Jeff Bezos with Amazon.com (1997)
Source: KIRO 7 News
Logo Experimentation (1997)
The initial Amazon logo underwent several iterations, with changes in color scheme and fonts. With each iteration, the logo slowly came into shape, with the color palette becoming increasingly similar to the modern logo.
Amazon experiments with logo iterations (1997)
Early Amazon Homepage (1997)
The company went public on May 15th, 1997 and raised $54 million in the process. Amazon's website underwent major changes, reflected in the design and more user-friendly interface. A left sidebar was introduced to enhance navigation, making the website more usable. Book covers and reviews were introduced to the experience to allow users to visualize the bookstore.
Amazon homepage image, restored by Version Museum (1997)
Additional Logo Changes (1998)
In 1998, the Amazon logo went through additional iterations. A lowercase serif font served as the main logo for a short time, with the tag line 'Earth's Biggest Bookstore' underneath. But later that year, the company employed a sans serif all-caps logo with a bright yellow letter 'O' in the middle. This was also taken down in a few months; the logo soon morphed into the more familiar lowercase sans-serif logo with a slightly curved yellow line underneath. The motto 'Books, Music and More' floated above. With Amazon's ambitious expansion plans, the slogan was taken out after a couple of months.
Homepage with 'Earth's Biggest Bookstore' slogan (1998)
Introduction of Tabs & International Expansion (1998)
As Amazon's ambitions grew beyond selling books, tabs were introduced to the website. The site itself went through numerous alterations, with the search bar making its first prominent appearance to the top left of the homepage in the latter half of the year.
Furthermore, international expansion began, with acquisitions of online stores in the United Kingdom and Germany.
Product Expansion, Zshops, and Auctions (1999)
The use of tabbed navigation became more practical when toys, games, electronics, and auctions launched to shoppers as part of Amazon's hunger to expand service lines. A right sidebar was also added.
A market for third party sellers to showcase their products on Amazon was created, called zShops. Eventually, this evolved to become the Amazon Marketplace in 2000.Amazon also experimented with Auctions in this timeframe, which later shut down in 2002.
The Modern Amazon Logo With a Smile (2000)
Design agency Turner Duckworth created the now-iconic logo for Amazon in the year 2000 with a custom typeface. Cleverly, designer Anthony Biles devised a smile that connects the letters A and Z. Jeff Bezos wanted something produced quickly, without the typical market research and focus group feedback process. Reportedly, Bezos jokingly claimed 'Anybody who doesn’t like that logo doesn’t like puppies!'
Amazon Letter A Logo (2000)
Tab Insanity (2000)
As Amazon's catalog diversified to include categories such as art, kitchen, lawn & patio, tools, and beauty, the tabs expanded in turn -- sometimes to a comical degree. Luke Wroblewski documented this in his excellent piece on the history of Amazon’s tab navigation.
Amazon homepage with 15 tabs (2000)
Tabs Refined (2001-2003)
Amazon added additional categories such as eBooks, baby items, cell phones, and video games. With the growing number of product categories, the tabs couldn't grow infinitely to keep pace with the limited real estate in the top navigation area. The tabs were reined in and the categories were moved to the left sidebar area. The Amazon logo decreased in size to accommodate the changes.
In 2002 Amazon experimented with a limited number of prominent tabs at the top again, and added some graphic flair in the form of a shirt to announce the arrival of the apparel store. Additionally, Amazon began offering Gold Box deals, showcasing the best deals on the site.
Tabs moved to left sidebar (2001)
The on-again off-again relationship with tabs continued, but this time they were severely curtailed. There were only tabs for the homepage, a personalized page of products called Your Store, and a link to all the product categories.
Amazon Prime began in February 2005, and prominent ads for the service were plastered on the homepage.
Interestingly, the category page that lists 30+ types of products also has some logos, that in retrospect, are fascinating to see. Amazon used to power the websites for Toys-R-Us, Babies-R-Us, and Target. Toys-R-Us and Babies-R-Us ended up going bankrupt, closing all their US and British stores in 2018. Target and Amazon are now fierce competitors in the retail sector. But back in 2005, online retail was a small slice of the pie and wasn't strategic enough for these companies to own themselves.
Amazon product categories with Toys-R-Us and Target (2005)
Tabs Begone! (2008)
The tab structure was completely discontinued in favor of the left sidebar. The site embraced a blue and orange color scheme, complementing the orange from the smile in the logo.
The Kindle ebook reader launched in 2007, and Amazon used the most valuable space in all of retail -- its own homepage -- to market the product to potential buyers. In the image displayed below, Jeff Bezos celebrates the fact that Kindle is back in stock and invites customers to view the Amazon shareholder letter to understand the product roadmap. This really illustrates the relationship Bezos' attempted to cultivate with Amazon users.
Amazon homepage with Kindle ad (2008)
iPods and Blackberries (2009)
Design-wise, 2009 didn't see many changes. But in a museum like ours, who doesn't like to see old favorites like iPods and Blackberry phones? These classics were still huge sellers in 2009. The iPhone came out in June 2007 and was still in its infancy. The first Android device, the T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream, was launched in September 2008.
Amazon homepage with iPods and Blackberries (2009)
Picture Of Amazon Rainforest
Amazon Blackberry Bold 9000 product page (2009)
Colorless Redesign (2012)
With a totally updated look, Amazon dropped almost all traces of bold colors in the borders and background. Orange fonts were used prominently to show prices and bolded text. A gray background gradient floated behind the top navigation area. Responsive web design elements started making their way into the site to allow phones, tablets, and desktops to all view the same webpage cleanly. Also, the left sidebar was eliminated.
Amazon product page for Lord Of The Rings (2012)
Minimalist, Responsive Design (2015)
The homepage moved to a modular design while still promoting all of Amazon's own product line.
Amazon selling itself (2016-2019)
Over toilet cabinet wood. Amazon continued to transform into a more spartan look with fewer items for sale on the homepage, but with more and more of those items being its own products and services.
In 2017, the site debuted the new products promotional banner ad at the top of the homepage. Clicking through this ad shows the customer a page full of unique and novel products the user presumably hasn't seen before.
Amazon homepage in August (2019)
Source: Version Museum
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