The fires in the Amazon continue to blaze and spark outrage across the world. While images of billowing smoke and flames have taken center stage, the recent fires have also let loose a more stealthy peril: carbon monoxide.
NASA's Aqua satellite has captured new data showing the movement of carbon monoxide associated with fires in the Amazon region of Brazil.
The map shows levels of the pollutant at an altitude of 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) between August 8 and August 22, 2019. Green indicates concentrations of carbon monoxide at approximately 100 parts per billion by volume (ppbv); yellow, at about 120 ppbv; and red, at about 160 ppbv.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas that’s produced when anything made out of carbon, whether it's vegetation or fossil fuel, is combusted with an insufficient supply of air or oxygen. It’s most often associated with gas-burning fires in stuffy rooms, but it can also be produced as a result of forest fires.
If you inhale carbon monoxide, especially in a confined indoor space, it can enter your bloodstream and bind with the oxygen carrier in your red blood cells known as hemoglobin. When this happens, the blood’s hemoglobin is no longer able to carry oxygen. Eventually, a lack of oxygen can cause the body's cells and tissues to fail and die. The gas is less dangerous in outdoor air, as very high levels are unlikely to occur, although it is still considered a harmful air pollutant that damages air quality. High atmospheric levels are especially worrying for people with some types of heart disease.
Carbon monoxide can also fan the flames of climate change. Although it is not strictly considered a greenhouse gas, its presence in the atmosphere can affect greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, so it can indirectly act as an agent of climate change.
“A pollutant that can travel large distances, carbon monoxide can persist in the atmosphere for about a month. At the high altitude mapped in these images, the gas has little effect on the air we breathe; however, strong winds can carry it downward to where it can significantly impact air quality,” NASA said in a statement. “Carbon monoxide plays a role in both air pollution and climate change."
Brazil’s Amazon has experienced over 41,850 fires so far this year, as of August 24. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has detected 85 percent more forest fires this year than in the same period in 2018, however, the fires are well within the historical range of the past 20 years. INPE data, analyzed by Mongabay, shows that there were more fires in the Brazilian Amazon (from January to August) in the years 2010, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002.
Nevertheless, even though this is becoming the new norm, it is no reason to be complacent. The Amazon rainforest is one of the most important biomes on our planet, playing a key role in maintaining natural processes on Earth. As these fires are a testament to, the rainforest in Brazil is facing an ever-growing crisis that's only set to deepen given the sitting president's lax attitude towards environmental regulations and his administration's close ties to agribusiness.