A team of international researchers concludes that the 2019 Amazon wildfires should not be considered “normal” despite such claims made earlier this year by the Brazilian Government, adding that increased deforestation has likely led to an above-average fire year.
According to new research, the number of active fires in August of this year was three times higher than in 2018 and the highest since 2010. It is unclear what was burning to create so many fires, and researchers at Lancaster University say that pinpointing fuel types is crucial to understanding impacts and identifying potential solutions.
“Managing Amazonian fires requires understanding what is burning, what drives contagion and extent, and how different drivers combine to make the Amazon more flammable,” write the authors in Global Change Biology.
According to the paper, there are three types of Amazon fires; those in areas that have previously been burned, namely due to agricultural practices, those that invade standing forests, and those that are spurred by deforestation. Each of these fires has different drivers, yet deforestation often increases when government rules and regulations are lax. Climate change can worsen the effects of deforestation by creating drier than usual conditions that quickly dry out any logged brush or timber.
Data from the Brazilian government’s DETER-b deforestation detection system, which tracks deforestation rates by using images taken from NASA satellites, found strong evidence that the fires are linked to increases in deforestation this year. Deforestation in July was nearly four times the average for the same period from the last three years, resulting in a loss of more than 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) of forest cover between August 2018 and July 2019.
“The marked upturn in both active fire counts and deforestation in 2019, therefore, refutes suggestions by the Brazilian government that August 2019 was a normal fire month in the Amazon," said study lead author Jos Barlow of Lancaster University in a statement.
Wildfires are normal for parts of the Amazon rainforest in the late summer and early fall, but fires this year increased by at least 75 percent while deforestation rates have increased by 278 percent in July as compared to last year. The record number of wildfires required military personnel and planes to combat the wildfires and sparked the movement of carbon monoxide across the planet. Images taken from space showed just how extensive the more than 39,000 individual fires across the rainforest had become – such smoke plumes are usually the result of deforestation-related burns.
Without tackling deforestation, the study authors say that the world will “continue to see the largest rainforest in the world being turned to ashes.”
“Brazil has for the past decade been an environmental leader, showing to the world that it can successfully reduce deforestation. It is both economically and environmentally unwise to revert this trend,” said researcher Erika Berenguer of Lancaster University and the University of Oxford.
Fires decreased in September by 35 percent yet it is not clear if this is due to rains or a government moratorium on burning. Furthermore, the extent of burns is not necessarily clear as the number of individual fires doesn’t always reflect how much land burns.