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You Asked: How Destructive Are the Amazon Rainforest Fires? Can They Be Stopped?

Got a question about climate change? Feeling curious about conservation? “You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. To submit a question, drop a comment below, message us on Instagram, or email us here.

The following questions were submitted through our Instagram page by two of our followers:

Could you tell us what’s going on with the Amazon rainforest fires? How can a forest fire in the Amazon can be stopped? Are forest fires very destructive to the Amazon? 

Fernandes is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, also affiliated with Columbia University as an adjunct with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI).

Answer provided by Kátia Fernandes

1. Could you tell us what’s going on with the Amazon rainforest fires?

The majority of fires in the Amazon are not actually burning in standing rainforests, but on lands that were altered for agro-pastoral use, timber extraction, infrastructure development, or that are in different stages of forest regrowth. The Amazon is home to about 30 million people, and fires are an inexpensive method for clearing the land for planting.

In years of drought, such as 2005, 2010 and 2016, fire activity increased, due in part to the use of fires in agriculture that spread to areas not intended for burning, including the forest edges. However, one peculiarity about this year’s active fire season is the absence of drought. Precipitation during the May-July trimester was near normal or above normal in the western Amazon, although July 2019 was one of second warmest since 2000. This is relevant to fires because a warmer environment leads to faster evapotranspiration rates, which in turn leads to faster vegetation water stress and greater susceptibility to fires.

It’s too early to say precisely how much of the current increase in fire activity is due to which driver, but this year’s climate anomalies alone are unlikely to explain it all without factoring in changes in human activities such as deforestation.

precipitation maps
Western Amazon May-July standardized precipitation anomalies with respect to period 1981-2019. Green shades show positive precipitation anomalies whereas orange shades represent drought. Courtesy of Kátia Fernandes
July temperature anomalies in the amazon
July temperature anomalies (1981-2019 base period) averaged over the western Amazon. Courtesy of Kátia Fernandes

2. How can a forest fire in the Amazon can be stopped?

Once fires spread into forested areas, firefighters’ access is greatly reduced due to limited road infrastructure. In addition, the capital and human resources necessary to combat fires over such an extensive and remote region are challenging. The most effective way is preventing fires, and for that, an effective monitoring system and enforcement of environmental laws are essential.

3. Are forest fires very destructive to the Amazon?

Fires are detrimental to the Amazon rainforest ecosystem in various aspects. The most obvious is the negative impact it has on plant and animal biodiversity. Fires can also cause forest edges to fragment by first burning smaller trees and forest understory, which makes the canopy more open, drier, and thus more susceptible to burning the next time around.

Another important aspect of fires relates to smoke. Large populations in the western Amazon have been exposed for weeks to levels of contaminants that are dangerous if experienced continuously for 24 hours. Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to respiratory and cardiac diseases due to smoke pollution.

The burning of forests has global impacts as well. The release of carbon stored as biomass contributes to an increase in atmospheric CO2, thus having long-lasting impacts on global climate change.

Fire detections in Brazil, as observed by NASA’s satellites August 15-22, 2019. The locations of the fires, shown in orange, have been overlain on nighttime imagery. In these data, cities and towns appear white; forested areas appear black; and tropical savannas and woodland (known in Brazil as Cerrado) appear gray. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens. More images and info here.
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