Amazon wildfires threaten global climate, scientists warn

quemas amazonia by INPE
Image taken from NASA's Suomi NPP satellite on 3 September, 2019. Red crosses represent fires detected in the vegetation. Copyright: National Space Research Institute (INPE) of Brazil.

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  • Record number of fires in the Amazon threaten to change global climate
  • Smoke could affect cloud formation, rainfall patterns and energy balance
  • Government cuts mean fewer environmental agents controlling fires

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[SÃO PAULO] The effects of a record number of fires burning in the Amazon since January may go far beyond Brazil's and its neighbours' borders, with wider impacts on the global climate, scientists warn.

The Amazon rainforest, besides being home to millions of species of wildlife, acts as a huge carbon sink, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide (CO2) and helping to cool global temperatures.

However, blazes that have been consuming the forest in recent months are releasing much of the CO2 stored in its biomass into the atmosphere, warned Divino Vicente Silvério, a biologist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), in Brazil.

“Restoration of all forests affected by the fires could take up to 200 years,”

Miguel Crespo, director, Probioma, Santa Cruz

“It would contribute to an increase the concentration of CO2 and aerosols in the atmosphere, which could drastically affect cloud formation and precipitation patterns,” he told SciDev.Net.

As a result, rainfall could drop by half in Brazil's two largest cities — São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro — home to a total of 33 million people, he adds.

But far beyond these cities, Silvério points out, smoke from these fires can spread throughout the entire continent and alter Earth's energy balance, because smoke particles retain solar radiation and prevent it from returning to the atmosphere.

“Changes in the surface radiation balance could affect the process of plant photosynthesis and alter the way in which forests participate in the water and carbon cycle,” he explained.

Luiz Augusto Toledo Machado, a meteorologist at the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), added that the particles produced by the fires “may also reach the Atlantic Ocean and even southern Africa, interfering in the climate of those regions.”

Region in smoke

Elsewhere in Latin America, Bolivia is battling wildfires in the Chiquitano forest, one of the last dry tropical forest regions in South America. This area is sandwiched between the Amazon and the Gran Chaco — one of the largest dry forests in the world and the second largest forested ecosystem in South America.

According to Miguel Crespo, director of Probioma, an environmental NGO based in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, fires consumed 1 million hectares between July and August. “Restoration of all forests affected by the fires could take up to 200 years,” he said.

On 27 August, Bolivian President Evo Morales — currently running for president for a fourth term — finally succumbed to public protests and accepted international aid which he had initially refused. 

In Peru, the Environment Ministry advised in a statement that the likelihood of Brazilian fires reaching the Peruvian Amazon was “remote”, but warned that the smoke clouds could cause severe air pollution.

To monitor this, authorities have installed automatic equipment for measuring air quality in the southeastern region of Madre de Dios, the nearest to the Brazilian fires and home of Manu National Park, a World Heritage Site and one of the few untouched jungles still remaining.

“The smoke produced by wildfires contains fine particulate matter capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and causing severe cardiopulmonary diseases,” said Toledo Machado. “If this situation persists, fires in the Amazon tend to get worse over the coming months as the weather in the region gets dryer,” he told SciDev.Net.

The smoke clouds have also reached countries further south in the region. In Uruguay, the National Institute for Meteorology confirmed on 27 August that the fog affecting the country “like a grey veil” will persist for several days, even in the capital, Montevideo, on the South coast.

A sad record

Usually, farmers and loggers in the Amazon region use controlled fires to clear land, mostly for pasture or crops. However, an increase in illegal burning for agricultural expansion and deforestation and a decrease in the enforcement of environmental laws are considered the main reasons for the surge of fires in the Amazon, exacerbated by conditions during the dry season (June to November).

The world’s largest rainforest has experienced more than 90,000 fires since January, according to INPE, which uses satellite images to monitor burning spots across the country.

This represents an increase of more than 60 per cent compared to 2018, according to a report released on 20 August by Brazil's space research centre. It is also the greatest number of fires since the INPE began keeping track in 2013.

The situation is especially worrying in Mato Grosso and Pará states, where INPE identified 17,201 and 12,873 fire spots respectively since January. The third highest were the Amazonas states, with 7,843 registered in 2019 while in Brazil’s western savannah, 28,468 fires were detected in the same period.

“The situation has worsened as the government has been undermining the activities of the country’s main agency in charge of rainforest protection and the fighting of illegal fires [Ibama],” said José Antonio Marengo. He is a climatologist at the National Centre for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters, in São Paulo, and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPCC) scientific committee.

Since Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro took office in January, Ibama’s budget has shrunk by 25 per cent as part of governmentwide belt-tightening.

Marengo says the cuts have led to a drop in the numbers of environmental field agents that try to control fires and stop them spreading, especially during the dry season.

According to Silvério, 10 of the 516 Amazon municipalities were responsible for 37 per cent of the fire outbreaks recorded up to July.

One of them — which occurred in Rondônia state on 19 August — produced a huge plume of smoke that spread over the country like a dark cloud, and travelled thousands of kilometres. By mid-afternoon it had reached São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city.
This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America and Caribbean desk and edited for clarity.
With additional reporting by Zoraida Portillo and Daniela Hirschfeld.