EXPERT REACTION: Fires in the Amazon
Organisation/s: University of Tasmania, James Cook University, CSIRO, Griffith University, The University of Newcastle
These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.
Dr Petr Matous is a humanitarian and environmental engineer from the University of Sydney’s School of Civil Engineering
Large-scale fires in the Amazon rainforest can be linked to ill-conceived infrastructure development projects in the region. There are strong feedback loops between forest fires, development of road infrastructure and deforestation in Amazon, all of which are rapidly increasing under the current president of Brazil although he disputes the scientific evidence.
The Amazon used to be known for its extreme resistance to fires thanks to dense and moist tree canopies. But road construction along with insensitive logging has opened the canopy and increased the fuel load on the ground, which in turn allows for intensive fires during dry seasons and El Niño years. Dense fire smoke in the atmosphere also causes more. So, once large fires start more are likely to follow.
However, something can be done. Destructive forest fires can be reduced by maintaining large continuous blocks of conservation and Indigenous reserves in which logging and harmful infrastructure developments are forbidden. Carbon-offset fund policies can be used to make forest protection economically profitable for local communities.
In earlier decades Brazil was destroying an area of the Amazon rainforest nearly the size of Belgium each year. That cataclysmic loss has dropped since 2006 but is now dramatically rebounding. Most Amazon watchers attribute this to the recent election of President Jair Bolsonaro—the most aggressively pro-development and authoritarian leader in living memory, commonly known as the “Tropical Trump”.
Bolsonaro is effectively declaring a broad-based ‘war on the environment’ and on indigenous peoples and their lands in his efforts to spur unbridled mining, logging, dam and road development in the Amazon. Bolsonaro often brands anyone who opposes him a ‘liar’—including the director of the Brazilian Space Agency (INPE), who he fired last week for daring to release data showing a dramatic rise in Amazon deforestation.
There were nearly 72,000 fires in Brazil in 2019 to date, which is about 85 per cent higher than the same period in 2018. About half of these fires were in the Brazilian Amazon.
Although Brazil is indeed going thru another intense fire season as reported by their national space agency, NASA’s observatory has reported fire activity slightly below average https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145464/fires-in-brazil with regions above the average such as Amazonas and Rondonia, while others below average such as Mato Gross and Para.
Regardless who is right, the intensity of this year’s fire season is not consistent with the expected decline in fires and emissions given the global efforts to reduce deforestation to halt greenhouse emissions and biodiversity loss. Previous administrations had major achievements in reducing deforestation but it seems those gains are being lost.
The Amazon forest fires are simply the latest example of a problem that was identified decades ago. Global warming makes it more likely that vegetation will burn. This should be a serious concern because the burning releases more carbon dioxide, reinforcing the warming rate. As there are also other sources of positive feedback like shrinking of the Arctic polar ice cap and release of methane from the tundra, we are seeing a dangerous acceleration of climate change.
As the Australian Academy of Science warned years ago, to have a 50 per cent chance of keeping the increase in average global temperature below two degrees, global emissions need to peak by 2020 and then reduce rapidly. That means it is criminally irresponsible to be actively working to increase emissions, by opening new coal mines or increasing gas production. It also means we need, as a matter of urgency, to reduce Australia's local emissions, which are still increasing because the Commonwealth government is still asleep at the wheel.
In Australia we have 4,000 fires per week across the continent and we know that fully half of them are because of humans lighting them, with another third of them suspicious. If fires in the Amazon have increased by 86% in the past year you can bet that arson is involved.
As to the perpetrators we're seeing more and more fires being lit in pristine, globally significant ecologies by corrupt governments and corporate interests. I can name areas of SE Asia and Africa alongside South America where fires are lit to burn through areas and make room for resource exploitation, mining and transport, areas where the last remaining species, including primates, are on the precipice of extinction.
This is yet another global issue that needs immediate international leadership to preserve our planet and ultimately our peace. If nations are having to destroy a worldwide resource to maintain competitive advantage and run their economies, then we need to look at ways of paying them to be responsible custodians of that resource. The alternative is that we all go down together.
The fires in the Amazon are a global tragedy directly affecting indigenous communities, nine bordering nations and the world's richest parts of the terrestrial biosphere.
Will it affect climate change? Of course it will - it's a frightening example of the kind of runaway tipping point that climate scientists have been warning us about for decades.
The very reason why climate predictions have a large range of forecasts is events like this can pump out more emissions whilst simultaneously destroying some of the few remaining areas of the world that protect us. The combined effect is like stomping on the climate change accelerator.
Due to climate change, structures are being affected by increasingly large-scale and devastating natural disasters, costing many lives as well as billions of dollars. In addition, a large number of our existing structures do not satisfy the requirements of contemporary design standards, so during an emergency they may be vulnerable to structural or non-structural damage and thus loss of functionality.
Not only has the inferno raging in the Amazon released a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, it has also reduced the rainforest's capacity to convert CO2 back into oxygen, therefore exacerbating global heating even further.
The further the fire advances, the more CO2 will accumulate, which is dangerous for human, animal and plant health. CO2 is heavier than air, so it accumulates at ground level and reduces the very oxygen that we need in order to breathe.
"What is currently taking place in the Amazon only further highlights the urgent need for a rapid investment in CO2 conversion technologies. If we don't combat this threat head on, we will reach a tipping point whereby industrial CO2 emissions heat the planet to a point where fires will burn out of control and there will be no forests left to absorb CO2.
The extreme number of fires burning now is not a natural phenomenon. They are a direct result of mismanagement, underfunding and illegal deforestation, mostly for the cattle industry.
The impact of these fires is felt most acutely by the Indigenous communities that rely on Amazonian biodiversity for their livelihoods. But the impact goes much further. Brazil’s cities are choking on the smoke. And deforestation of the Amazon is affecting rainfall across South America. Beyond this, the planet is losing an important carbon sink and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere.
The carbon dioxide released by human activity can be classified as coming from one of two major sources: the burning of fossil fuels or land use change. Once emitted, that CO2 can go into one of three possible sinks. It can stay in the atmosphere, be taken up by the oceans or become stored in the land biosphere.
The fires currently burning in the Amazon are contributing a source of emissions on the land use change side of the equation, and reducing CO2 uptake on the land biosphere sink side.
This process has been observed during strong El Niño events and led to record high observed levels of atmospheric CO2 in 2016. The El Niño forest fires that occur in Asia and South America are in a sense natural.
It appears that the current Amazon fires are not, and they will likely contribute in a detectable way to the global rise in atmospheric CO2.
The regular occurrence of wildfires in the Amazon, which has currently reached an unprecedented level, further accelerates the vicious cycle of human-climate interaction.
On one hand, the local pressures of human settlement on this vast, but increasingly fragile, carbon-sink is a key contributing factor to global climate change, on the other hand the huge volume of smoke emitted is adding to the already significant and possibly irreversible level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, accelerating the impacts of climate change.
This event demonstrates clearly that disasters are not 'natural' but result from human action on the natural systems. It also points to the transboundary impacts of a disaster occurring in a forest that spans across several countries – the smoke from Bolivia and Rondônia has cast a gloom on São Paulo in Brazil, a city that has been incessantly growing and swallowing up its surrounding natural areas that are so essential for resisting climate change – the vicious cycle is clear.
Two key multi-nation strategies need to be considered for the future – firstly, a mitigation strategy to prevent such disasters from continuing to happen; and secondly, a strategy to repair the severe damage and support long-term rejuvenation of the rainforest.
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