The number of registered hotspots in the Amazon this year is already 60% greater than levels seen over the last three years. The outbreak of record numbers of fires can be attributed to deforestation and not drought, according to a technical memo on the current burning season that the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) released today.Access the full technical memo here.
Between January 1 and August 14 of this year, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) identified 32,728 outbreaks in the Amazon region. One factor that could potentially explain this marked increase would be an intense drought as recorded in 2016. However, this hypothesis must be rejected: despite being the dry season, moisture levels in the Amazon are currently above average compared to the last three years.
If the dry season does not explain the current fires, the only other plausible explanation is that deforestation is fanning the flames. Fire is commonly used to clear the terrain after forests are felled. An analysis of current hotspots and the logging record produced by the Deforestation Alert System (SAD) suggests that this is indeed the case.
“There are no natural fires in the Amazon. There are, however, people who light fires, which can worsen and turn into wildfires during the dry season,” explains IPAM Science Director Ane Alencar, one of the authors of the memo. “Even in a less severe drought than in 2016, when we suffered from a very strong El Niño effect, the risk of fires growing out of control is high.”
The smoke, for its part, creates other problems in the region. Those who live nearby then suffer from respiratory issues, which burdens the public health system. This has an impact on the economy as well when employees can no longer work. In Acre state, which the memo highlights as an example, satellites have already recorded 1,790 hot spots this year, 57% more than in 2018 and 23% more than in 2016. Cities in Acre state have seen levels of particulate matter much greater than what the World Health Organization considers to be safe.
“The consequences for the population are immense. Air pollution makes people sick, and the economic impact can be high,” according to IPAM senior researcher Paulo Moutinho. “Combating deforestation, which drives the fires, and discouraging the use of fire to clear land are critical to ensuring the health of both people and the forests.”