Forest Fires Cause Skies In Indonesia To Turn A Hellish Red


Katy Evans

Katy is Managing Editor at IFLScience where she oversees editorial content from News articles to Features, and even occasionally writes some.

Managing Editor


Over 800,000 acres have been cleared by mostly illegal forest fires since January. Ares Joenskon/Shutterstock 

It may look like a scene from Blade Runner, or how we once imagined Mars would look on the surface, but these photos and videos were captured during the day in Jambi, Indonesia this week. Skies turned red, and a haze engulfed the province on the island of Sumatra, because of fires raging in the rainforest.

Locals took to social media to share the apocalyptic views of their hometowns. Despite looking surreal, or like they’ve been put through an Instagram filter turned up to 11, these images are very real, and there’s a sad reason behind them.


So what is happening?

This hellish landscape is caused by a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering. The sky is usually perceived as blue because of the scattering of light particles in the atmosphere. This scattering is more effective at short wavelengths so the light that is scattered down to the Earth is usually at the shortest end of the spectrum: blue. However, here, the micro-particles in the air caused by pollution are equal to the wavelengths, causing red light to be scattered more efficiently.

As many of these videos were taken around midday local time, this could also be making the sky appear redder.

"If the Sun is overhead and you look up, [you will be looking] in the line of the Sun, so it would appear that more of the sky is red," Associate Professor Koh Tieh Yong, of the Singapore University of Social Sciences told BBC News.


What is causing it?

Every year, both large corporations and small-scale farmers use the dry season (July to October) to clear huge portions of the forest for pulp, paper, and palm oil plantations. Farmlands are burned for the new season’s crops, and to expand that land, encroaching on the forest little by little. This indiscriminate burning often spirals out of control, with wildfires spreading into designated protected areas and creating a haze and smog that is dangerously above safe levels.

In Jambi last week, air quality deteriorated to 407 micrograms per cubic meter, while in Borneo it reached 427. According to the World Health Organization, 150 micrograms is unhealthy, and 50 is considered good.

According to Indonesia’s national disaster agency, 328,724 hectares (around 812,00 acres) of forest have been cleared between January and August so far this year. This slash and burn technique is illegal. If caught, companies face a fine of 10 billion rupiahs (around $700,000), and up to 10 years in jail, although this hasn’t dissuaded perpetrators.


However, 185 people have been arrested across the six provinces that have been affected by the fires, and four corporations are under investigation, according to CNN.

Attempts to get the fires under control include water bombing the forests, and cloud seeding to produce artificial rain. Though, as Indonesian President Joko Widodo says, “The most correct is prevention before the incident.”