In August 2019, a photograph supposedly showing smoke billowing up from a section of the Amazon rainforest went viral on social media along with the claim that the tropical jungle had been burning for weeks:
The Amazon has been burning for 3 weeks, and I’m just now finding out because of the lack of media coverage. THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ECOSYSTEMS ON EARTH. SPREAD AWARENESS #PrayforAmazonia pic.twitter.com/HHVnaM66VV
— ????? (@tyswizzlee) August 20, 2019
The news came as a shock to some. The Amazon is regarded as one of the world’s most important ecosystems, sometimes referred to as the “lungs of the world.” Some viewers were surprised that they encountered this news for the first time on social media, as opposed to the front page of a newspaper or a breaking news alert on a cable network.
While the message in the above-displayed tweet is largely accurate, it’s also missing a bit of context. For instance, some viewers may think that the Amazon has never seen a forest fire. But that isn’t the case. Wildfires often occur during drier summer months. Farmers may also intentionally set fires (often illegally) in order to clear land. In fact, neither of the photographs displayed in this viral tweet was taken in 2019. The image on the left shows a fire from 1989, and the image on the right has been online since at least 2012. A number of other outdated and unrelated photographs have also been circulated as if they depicted the 2019 fires.
What was notable in mid-2019 was the size and number of fires. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that there had been more than 72,000 fires in Brazil in 2019, an 80% increase compared to the same period from 2018.
Fires are raging at a record rate in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, and scientists warn it could strike a devastating blow to the fight against climate change.
The fires are burning at the highest rate since the country’s space research center, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), began tracking them in 2013, the center said Tuesday.
There have been a total of 72,843 fires in Brazil this year, with more than half in the Amazon region, INPE said. That’s more than an 80% increase compared with the same period last year.
The Amazon is often referred to as the planet’s lungs, producing 20% of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere.
It is considered vital in slowing global warming, and it is also home to uncountable species of fauna and flora. Roughly half the size of the US, it is the largest rainforest on the planet.
While Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research recorded its highest rate of fires in Brazil since it started recording in 2013, NASA found that the total fire activity in the Amazon basin was actually slightly below average when compared to the last 15 years:
The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured these images of several fires burning in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, and Mato Grosso on August 11 and August 13, 2019.
In the Amazon region, fires are rare for much of the year because wet weather prevents them from starting and spreading. However, in July and August, activity typically increases due to the arrival of the dry season. Many people use fire to maintain farmland and pastures or to clear land for other purposes. Typically, activity peaks in early September and mostly stops by November.
As of August 16, 2019, satellite observations indicated that total fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average in comparison to the past 15 years. Though activity has been above average in Amazonas and to a lesser extent in Rondônia, it has been below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database.
The Amazon rainforest fires were largely blamed on two things: loosened environmental restrictions (leading to deforestation) and global warming.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noted that the Amazon was once thought to be “fire-resistant” thanks to the wetness of the area, but regional deforestation and anthropogenic climate change have increased the frequency of droughts that were once considered “once-in-a-century events”:
Throughout most of its history, the Amazon rainforest was relatively fire-resistant thanks to its natural moisture and humidity. Wildfires there today are caused by a combination of droughts and human activity; the intensity and frequency of droughts in turn, have been linked with increases in regional deforestation and anthropogenic climate change. In fact, the Amazon rainforest has experienced three major droughts, considered “once-in-a-century events” in 2005, 2010, and in 2015-2016.
When trees have less water during droughts, they shed extra leaves or die, leaving leaf litter and detritus on the forest floor. Without a dense canopy to retain moisture, much of the forest’s humidity is lost. Additionally, the practice of “selective logging” of specific tree species and “slash and burn” agriculture opens the canopy further, which also dries out the understory and forest edges.
Conservationists also reported the increase in fires may have been due to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies. Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019, campaigned on a promise to roll back environmental protections in order to develop the region for farming and mining:
“Season of the queimada” refers to the time of year when farmers intentionally set fire to the forest for agricultural purposes; however, many have noted that the fires are isolated and that there has been an unprecedented surge in wildfires since Bolsonaro took office in early 2019. During his campaign, Bolsonaro had promised to roll back protections on Brazil’s rainforest and indigenous rights, stating the country’s natural resources should be exploited in a “reasonable way.”
Bolsonaro, however, dismissed reports about an increase of fires in the Amazon rainforest and blamed the recent forest fires on the “season of the queimada.”
Bolsonaro told Reuters: “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame.”