The 2015 fires were the worst since 1997, when a strong El Niño also fanned widespread fires, says the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Fire is widely used in South-East Asia to clear vegetation and maintain land for the growing of crops, the paper explains. Last year, fires were exacerbated by extended drought associated with El Niño, releasing 857 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from September to October 2015, the authors say. This represents 97 per cent of the country’s annual carbon emissions.
Study co-author Martin Wooster, an earth observation scientist at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, says the data produced from the study were based on satellite observation and on-site measurement of the air in Palangkaraya, the capital city of Central Kalimantan province, which experienced the country’s thickest smog during last year’s fires.
“We are ready for the worst case this year even though it is unlikely that the same catastrophe will happen again.”
Sugarin, Climatic and Meteorological Agency
“There have been some isolated studies before where people artificially set fires in the lab to try to understand the chemical characteristics of peatland fire smoke in Indonesia,” Wooster explains. But this study is the first of its kind: “no one had done this for natural fires, and especially not on the kind of extreme fires seen in 2015.”
Wooster believes the study is more than enough to prod the Indonesian government to take serious steps in fighting forest fires, which have a severe impact on human lives.
“Every year, the global atmospheric CO2 concentration is rising, and in 2015 it rose more than any other year since measurements began,” he says, adding that governments in South-East Asia are “very aware” of the impact on air quality in the region.
Wooster notes the particulates in the atmosphere in some parts of Indonesia reached more than five times the hazardous levels, reducing visibility to a few hundred metres in places.
Sugarin, head of the Climatic and Meteorological Agency station in Riau, Sumatra, admits that the Indonesian government is now more serious in tackling the issue. He says Riau province is now in a state of “emergency alert” for peatland fires, with 15 hotspots under watch. This means the central government is ready to send helicopters for “water bombings”.
“We are ready for the worst case this year even though it is unlikely that the same catastrophe will happen again,” says Sugarin. This year, the El Niño phenomenon will not return and the dry season will not bring such severe drought, he adds.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.