What is causing the fires?
It is common for the Amazon to witness fires during the dry season – which runs from July to October. Last year, Brazil recorded more than 40,000 fires. Brazil’s space research center (INPE) says 99% percent of the fires result from human actions. “The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” INPE researcher Alberto Setzer told Reuters. On Wednesday, the smoke from the fires was so bad that it caused an hour-long blackout in Sao Paulo, located almost 1,700 miles away. The clouds can also be seen from space.
Is Brazil’s president to blame?
Activists say that the anti-environment rhetoric of Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, has given farmers and ranchers free rein to cut down trees without impunity. Since taking office in October 2018, Bolsonaro has emphasized economic development over environmental concerns—a policy pattern that has led to an uptick in agriculture, mining and deforestation across the Amazon. During his campaign, he vowed that if elected he would not set aside a single “centimetre” more land for Indigenous reserves. Within hours of taking office, he implemented a number of law changes that would benefit Brazil’s pro-development “rural caucus.”
How much forest is being destroyed?
According to Washington Post, infernos have razed 18,627 square kilometers (7,192 square miles) of Brazil’s Amazon region this year to date. Comparatively, Amazonian fires caused roughly half this damage—cutting through 3,168 square miles—over the same period in 2017. The INPE reported that the Amazon lost 870 square miles of forest in July alone.
Social media storm and fake photos
This week has seen an outpouring of social media posts decrying the forest fires – many of them using the hashtag #PrayforAmazonas. But some of the most viral posts have been shown to be unwittingly misleading – either because they include photos that are years old, or images taken were in other parts of the world. Among international leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron led the chorus terming the situation as an “international crisis”. But the image used by Macron is at least 16 years old – taken by a National Geographic photojournalist, Loren McIntyre, who died in 2003. Other celebrities – including Madonna, Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Novak Djokovic and Lewis Hamilton – have also shared images that do not depict the current crisis.
Wildfires are raging across the globe
In Brazil the worst-affected regions are in the north and Amazonas, the country’s largest state, has declared a state of emergency. But it is not the only country in the Amazon basin – which spans 7.4 million square kilometers – which has seen a high number of fires so far this year. Bolivia has seen a 114 per cent increase in blazes in the first eight months of this year. Venezuela has also seen more than 26,000 fires – a 19 per cent rise since last year. Although other countries have seen a much smaller number of blazes, Peru, Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana have recorded more than a 100 per cent increase this year. And the Amazon is not the only region which has been battling enormous wildfires this summer – Russia declared a state of emergency in June as wildfires raged across Siberia, with unprecedented outbreaks in the Arctic releasing more than 120 million tonnes of CO2 in just two months. Spain, Potugal, Greece, France, US all have seen wildfires.
Not the worst year of Amazonia
While the number of fires in Brazil is at its highest level for almost a decade, the data suggests that Brazil - and the wider Amazon region - may have experienced more intense burning in the past. An analysis of Nasa satellite data last week indicated that the total fire activity in 2019 across the Amazon, not just Brazil, is close to the average when compared with a longer 15 year period. Looking specifically at Brazil, figures from Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (Cams), a part of the European Union’s Earth observation programme, going back to 2003 show that the total CO2 equivalent emissions, used to measure of the amount and intensity of fire activity, are at their highest since 2010. But according to the data, emissions in Brazil were higher in the mid-2000s, as the chart below indicates.
What will happen next?
The situation can get much worse. The dry season in Amazon lasts till November and the peak fire season is yet to come. According to National Geographic, Amazon deforestation occurs in a cylical pattern: Forest loss, spurred by economic activities including harvesting timber, planting soy and building cattle pastures, leads to a decline in rainfall, which in turn engenders more deforestation. Eventually, experts say, this cycle could transform the lush rainforest into a dry, savannah-like ecosystem.
Impact on climate fight
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that more than a quarter of the Amazon will be without trees by 2030 if the current rate of deforestation continues. Experts say fire and subsequent deforestation could make it nearly impossible to limit global warming to levels called for by the Paris Agreement. Although the Amazon currently accounts for roughly a quarter of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon absorbed by all global forests, changing weather patterns, deforestation, tree mortality and other factors are hampering its ability to serve as an essential carbon sink. And when these trees are cut or burned, the carbon they have been holding is released giving the climate a double blow.