The Amazon rainforest is still burning. 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.
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 is to retain what’s left by stopping the ongoing fires and deforestation as quickly as possible. 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.