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According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to a 12-year high in the year between August 2019 and July 2020. 

During this time, 11 088 sq km of rainforest was destroyed- up 9.5% from the previous year and the highest level of destruction since 2008, according to the INPE during its annual news conference this week. 

Brazil’s vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, attempted to be positive about the figures as he visited INPE’s headquarters in São José dos Campos this week. Mourão claimed the annual increase of 9.5% was less than half the anticipated figure of about 20%. He said, “We’re not here to commemorate any of this, because it’s nothing to commemorate. But it means that the efforts being launched [against Amazon deforestation] are starting to yield fruit.”

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What is Happening?

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and is called the “lungs of the world” as one of the planet’s best defenses against climate change. The rainforest is capable of pulling billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. 

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

The Amazon rainforest is still experiencing wildfires, according to satellite imagery. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reports that as many as 82,285 fires have been detected in the rainforest so far this year – a significant increase from the same period in 2018. The findings pitted scientists against national authorities who vehemently disputed the data, marring the government into an international controversy from which it was forced to back down during the latest G7 meeting in Biarritz. 

The blazes erupted last month were so large that plumes of smoke are visible from space, and have wafted thousands of miles east to the Atlantic Coast plunging Brazil’s largest city São Paulo into hazy darkness in the middle of the day.

The Amazon has been increasingly threatened by man-made wildfires for more than three decades now. Earth.Org analysed satellite data to create a year-by-year pattern of fires across the Amazon rainforest since 2011. We used current and historical data from two NASA satellites, Terra and Aqua, which tracked the fire by detecting the infrared radiation emitted by blazes.

2019 — Over 18,700 sq km of the rainforest — an area larger than Fiji — are currently burning in the Brazilian part of the Amazon, while another 7,250 sq km in neighboring Bolivia too are on fire. These blazes endanger the lives of 1 million indigenous people and millions of other species and plants.

2018 — Data shows that over 45,656 fires were active this year — significantly fewer number compared to 2019.

2017 — This was another worst year that recorded the highest number of fires compared to the previous 10 years. Data reveals that there was a 29% rise in the number of fires in the rainforest since 2016.

2016 — Brazil suffered its worst drought in decades and saw an outbreak of more than 68,000 fires this year.

2015 — Wildfires that lasted more than two months consumed more than 4040 sq km of indigenous territory in the Maranhão region in Brazil this year. As many as 58,936 fires were recorded in Brazilian Amazon.

2014 — This year marked the beginning of a rapid rise of wildfires in the Amazon forest in this decade with 64,632 blazes was recorded in the dry season.

What Satellite Imagery Tells Us About Amazon Wildfires

2011-2013 — This three year period had a fewer number of fires — over 40,000 –compared to the later years.

What Satellite Imagery Tells Us About Amazon Wildfires

Wildfires in Brazil consume not just rainforest, but grasslands, savanna, and farmlands too. The yearly analysis shows a sharp increase in blazes that consumes rainforests compared to others.

What Satellite Imagery Tells Us About Amazon Wildfires

Amazon rainforest is spread across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana. Besides Brazil, other countries too witness wildfires in their territory. But fires usually consume the largest area in Brazilian Amazon compared to other countries.

What caused the Amazon fire?

The Amazon —  the largest and most diverse tropical rainforest on Earth, covering an area of 5.5 million sq km — almost never burns on its own given the moisty climate and terrain.  Deforestation is directly linked to fires in the Amazon as farmers set the forest ablaze to make room for livestock pastures and crop fields while these purposeful burns get out of control. The uptick in fires in the period between August to October coincides with the seasonal planting of soybean and corn crops.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost in the past five decades. Wildfires in recent years have added to that growing cumulative total of deforestation. With an increasing number of fires, Amazon eventually might reach a tipping point after which the forest might turn into a Savanna ecosystem or a seasonal forest. Every bit of satellite data we processed points to such scenarios. 

The most critical task at hand to preserve the Amazon is to retain what’s left by stopping the ongoing wildfires and deforestation as quickly as possible aided by satellite imagery. Brazil and other Amazon countries will have to develop a mechanism to protect and restore the rainforest in face of rising demand for agricultural lands.  

Deforestation rates in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, hit the highest level last month since the current monitoring system began in 2015. 

The Amazon Rainforest Fire

The raging wildfires that have been consuming vast tracts of woodlands in the Amazon rainforest raised unprecedented concerns among political leaders and environmentally conscious citizens worldwide. But the wildfires are not the only threats faced by the Amazon, which covers 5.5 million sq km of land over nine countries in South America. 

The world’s largest tropical rainforest has been under serious threats from extensive deforestation due to farming and cattle ranching, illegal mining, and illegal logging for decades. 

Over 750,000 sq km of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana since 1978.  One of the biggest drivers of such large-scale deforestation is cattle ranching. Low input cost and easy transportation in rural areas make cattle ranching an attractive economic activity in the forest frontier.  Brazil, which holds 60% of the Amazon, is now the world’s largest beef exporter, and in 2018 alone, these exports generated $6.7 billion for the country’s economy. The ranching accounts for over 80% of current deforestation rates in the Amazon.

Extensive soy cultivation is another activity that has been driving deforestation. Brazil — the second-largest producer of soybeans in the world — has cleared hectors of forest land to accommodate new cultivation. Rampant illegal logging is also causing degradation of the forest, which hosts abundant timber resources like Mahogany, Spanish cedar, and other members of the Meliaceae family.

An epidemic of illegal mining has also been threatening indigenous territories of the Amazon for decades. The Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG)– a consortium of civil society organisations in South America — revealed that there were as many as 2,312 illegal mining sites in 245 areas inside the forest across six countries. Illegal miners have established sophisticated infrastructure uprooting millions of trees and contaminating rivers with mercury as they dredge for gold and extract diamonds and coltan.  A study by researchers from the University of Puerto Rico found that approximately 415,000 acres of tropical forest have been lost to gold mining.

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NASA’s ECOSTRESS — a radiometer mounted on the International Space Station — captured a snapshot of fires burning in the Bolivian Amazon on August 23, 2019.

A bleak future?

The ongoing deforestation and this year’s fire have already done unprecedented damage to the Amazon. Climate change and increase in greenhouse gas emissions may also take a heavy toll on the rainforest, which is home to half the world’s species of plants and animals.   We recently published a study that examined the Amazon forest’s response to carbon dioxide fertilisation. Our results suggested that the resilience of the region to climate change may be much less than previously assumed. 

Restoring degraded parts of the forest might not be very easy. Our study showed that limited phosphorous availability in the tropical forest is negatively affecting its CO2 fertilisation abilities, therefore, causing the slowest growth of plant species than previously understood. The fire and deforestation may release the remaining phosphate into the atmosphere further worsening the situation. 

Another study suggested that climate change and extreme weather conditions may trigger a feedback loop accelerating dieback in the Amazon. A prolonged dry season and increased temperature in the region may cause a new drought. Since the Amazon recycles its rainwater, the reduced evapotranspiration may intensify the drought eventually leading to a tipping point after which forest would start to dieback faster and turn into a Savannah ecosystem.

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