Three Things to Know About the Fires Blazing Across the Amazon Rainforest
By Meilan Solly – smithsonian.com – August 22, 2019
Since January, a staggering 74,155 fires have broken out across Brazil, the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported Wednesday. This figure—an 85 percent uptick from the same point in 2018—includes more than 9,000 blazes spotted within the past week and represents the highest rate recorded since documentation began in 2013.
Crucially, environmentalists point out, the vast majority of the infernos are not wildfires, but rather intentional land clearing attempts undertaken by farmers and loggers emboldened by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-business policies. Regardless of origin, the blazes, now large enough to be seen from space, pose a significant threat to the Amazon, which is popularly known as the “lungs” of the planet due to its capacity for storing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. As Terrence McCoy writes for the Washington Post, the rainforest is “one of the world’s greatest defenses against climate change.”
Why fires are raging on such a large scale
According to McCoy, infernos have razed 7,192 square miles of Brazil’s Amazon region this year to date. Comparatively, Amazonian fires caused roughly half this damage—cutting through 3,168 square miles—over the same period in 2017. Andrew Freedman reports for the Washington Post that the number of fires recorded in 2019 greatly surpasses the 67,790 seen at this point in 2016, when a strong El Niño event created severe drought conditions in the area.
“This is without any question one of only two times that there have been fires like this [in the Amazon],” ecologist Thomas Lovejoy tells National Geographic’s Sarah Gibbens. “There’s no question that it’s a consequence of the recent uptick in deforestation.”
Per Reuters’ Paraguassu, the current surge of fires has enveloped the northern state of Roraima in black smoke and led states such as Amazonas, Acre, Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Para to declare emergencies or remain on environmental alert. On Monday, a mixture of clouds, smoke and a cold front actually plunged the city of São Paulo into total darkness during the middle of the day. As local resident Gianvitor Dias says to BBC News’ Kris Bramwell, “It was as if the day had turned into night. Everyone here commented, because even on rainy days it doesn’t usually get that dark.” Although many have connected the unsettling incident with the recent wave of fires, the New York Times’ Manuela Andreoni and Christine Hauser note that researchers are still working to determine whether the two are directly connected.
Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it’s smoke from the fires burning *thousands* of kilometers away, in Rondônia or Paraguay. Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke(!). SOS pic.twitter.com/P1DrCzQO6x— Shannon Sims (@shannongsims) August 20, 2019
According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the Amazonian fires have generated a discernible spike in carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions, threatening human health and exacerbating the effects of global warming. In the long run, deforestation-driven fire could prove devastating to the carbon-absorbing rainforest.
Among the groups most likely to be affected by the fires are the Amazon’s indigenous populations. Per Alexis Carey of Australia’s news.com.au, up to one million indegenous individuals constituting some 500 tribes live in the region and are at risk of losing their homes to infernos or encroaching cattle ranchers. In a video posted on Twitter by the activist Sunrise Movement, a Pataxó woman decries the illegal land clearing, saying, “They are killing our rivers, our sources of life, and now they have set our reserve on fire.”
Facing heavy criticism from those who say his economic policies are driving the crisis, Bolsonaro opted to accuse nongovernmental organizations of setting the fires. “It could be, it could, I’m not saying it is, a criminal action by these N.G.O. people to call attention against me, against the Brazilian government,” he said, as quoted by the Times. “This is the war we face.”
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