Amazon facing worst fire season on record, expert says

Sunrise from a canopy tower overlooking the Amazon Forest. If something isn't done, these trees could go up in smoke before we know it. (© Luana Luna)

Sunrise from a canopy tower overlooking the Amazon Forest. New technology could help countries and rural communities fight wildfires before they start. (© Luana Luna)

Editor’s note: As the world’s attention turns to Brazil for the upcoming Olympic Games, the region may soon draw attention for a different reason: This year’s fire season is slated to be the worst on record in the Amazon region.

The good news: Technology is getting us closer to fighting wildfires before they start, as Karyn Tabor, director of early warning systems at Conservation International, explained in a recent interview.

Question: Why is this year looking so bad for fire risk in the Amazon region? What does the “worst fire season on record” mean in real terms?

Answer: The past two severe droughts in the Amazon have been predominantly driven by the warming of the North Atlantic Ocean. But this year, the severe drought was driven purely by a severe El Niño and scientists are saying climate change could cause more frequent and intense El Niños.

In terms of what the “worst fire season” means, essentially: Very bad carbon emissions. The Amazon is a very carbon-dense ecosystem. In 2005, there were 1.6 gigatons of carbon released into the atmosphere from fires in that severe drought. That’s equal to the amount of carbon emissions from the United States in one year.

There’s also the resulting smoke pollution and health issues from the air quality: In 2005 about 500,000 people in Brazil alone were affected by smoke pollution, which could potentially be a real problem for this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio.

There’s also the potential for what’s known as the “Amazon Dieback Scenario,” which is a theory that if you keep drying out the forest and having severe fires, there will be a threshold where the forest will dry out so much that the trees will store less carbon, they won’t be able to do as much transpiration (evaporation of water from plant leaves) and they won’t be able to release as much oxygen. This would have a global effect and — critically — would change rainfall patterns in the Amazon.

Q: What roles, if any, do climate change or deforestation play in increasing the fire risk in the Amazon?

A: Immediately, climate change may be increasing the frequency and intensity of El Niños on top of a general trend in ocean temperature warming. Anomalous sea surface temperatures suppress rainfall in the dry season. That means increasing the frequency and intensity of these fire seasons. In addition, as we’re deforesting and degrading the forest, we’re also making forests less resilient to drought and fire. With the additional stress of the drier conditions caused by climate change, the forests are not able to recover from fires as easily or as fast.

Research has shown that once there’s a fire in one area of tropical forest, it will burn more frequently than a pristine area that’s never been burned. Pristine areas are more resilient to drought and fire, so it’s really critical to try and keep forests intact because once they are damaged, it’s a lot harder to protect them.

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Q: How do we know that the fire risk is so high? How do you predict fire risks in the Amazon?

A: Firecast — a forest and fire monitoring and alert system for the tropics — operates differently in each country where we work. Right now, we only have short-term season severity predictions for the Amazon using data produced at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The current model works really well in South America because there are simpler connections with sea surface temperatures and fire season severity than in other regions.

CI also developed a daily fire risk model for the Amazon. This is an empirical model based on daily conditions of rainfall, relative humidity and temperature. It can be applied anywhere as long as you have those measurements.



Q: What can be done to reduce fire risk in the Amazon?

A: The simple solution is accurate and timely information coupled with local outreach and education. Firecast delivers accurate fire-risk information in as close to real-time as possible. The next critical step is packaging the information in a way that is relevant and useful for local people.

Our short-term, seasonal predictions on fire season severity help governments and other organizations prepare for what’s going to happen, allocating resources for deterring illegal activities or firefighting.

Then there’s the role of the actual daily fire-risk model, which CI had been connecting directly to local communities in Bolivia for the past decade through a partnership with a local conservation organization, Fundaҫion Amigos de la Naturaleza. Our partners are doing the of education with small-town farmers, particularly indigenous communities and also Mennonite communities in Santa Cruz, teaching them when to burn and when not to burn the lands. If they burn through high fire-danger conditions, it can spread to the forest as well as their own properties, damaging infrastructure and threatening lives. That’s why the key is engaging directly with local governments and organizations already conducting education outreach activities, which I think is probably the number one solution.

You can produce these forecasts, but if they’re not going to be used locally, then they’re almost useless.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer at Conservation International.

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