Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them?

Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them? Adam Ronan, Author provided

Imagine a rainforest at dawn – the tall canopy laden with dripping ferns and orchids, tree trunks covered in spongy mosses and lichens, and the morning mist only slowly burning away as the sun rises. While there is fuel everywhere, it seems unimaginable that such humid ecosystems could ever catch fire.

And without human intervention, they don’t. The charcoal record points towards infrequent fires in the Amazon even during periods of pre-Columbian human settlement, and the 8,000 or more Amazonian tree species have none of the evolutionary adaptations to fire found in their savanna or boreal cousins.

But, with thousands of fires currently burning across the Amazon, it’s worth looking at how these wildfires behave. In this context, a “wildfire” is one which has gone out of control, even if started by humans. What do they mean for a forest that hasn’t evolved with fire? And what is needed to prevent further damage?

Contrary to many images circulated online depicting blazing canopies, wildfires in previously undisturbed tropical forests do not appear as ecosystem changing events. Flames advance just 200 to 300 metres a day and rarely exceed 30cm in height, burning only leaf litter and fallen wood.

A fire in undisturbed rainforest burns slowly through the rainforest in Amazonian Brazil (Jos Barlow)

 

Most mobile animals are able to flee, and firefighters – if present – can bring it to a halt by raking simple fire breaks. Indeed, the humble trails of leaf cutter ants were sufficient to stop forest fires in an experiment in the southern Amazon.

But the intensity of a fire does not necessarily predict its severity. The lack of natural adaptation to deal with wildfires make rainforest species incredibly sensitive. Even a low intensity wildfire can kill half the trees. While small trees are initially most susceptible, larger ones often die in subsequent years leading to an eventual loss of more than half of the forest’s carbon stocks. These large trees hold the most carbon, and subsequent regrowth of pioneer species is no compensation – once-burned, forests hold 25% less carbon than unburned forests even after three decades of regrowth.

Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them? Fire creeps along the floor of a previously undisturbed Amazonian rainforest. Jos Barlow, Author provided

With such a devastating impact on the trees, it is not surprising that forest-dependent animals and people are also affected. Primates are less abundant in burned forests and many specialist insectivorous birds disappear altogether. And local people, who use forests for game, building materials and medicines, lose one of their most important safety nets.

Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them? The Wing banded Antbird (Myrmornis torquata) is a secretive oddball terrestrial songbird that flips leaves to look for insects in the forest understorey. The species vanishes in burned forests as fires alter its humid understorey habitat. Alexander Lees

All this happens when a forest burns for the first time. However, the situation is very different when forests suffer recurrent fires. Then, fuel from previous tree mortality creates a veritable bonfire, tinderbox dry under an open canopy. Flame heights in these forests often reach the treetops, causing the death of almost all remaining trees.

Such a scenario has been likened to “savannization” – but while the resulting scrub and sparse trees may share superficial similarities with fire-dependent tropical grasslands, they contain none of their unique biodiversity or cultural values. Instead, recurrent wildfires are more likely to hasten the Amazon’s transition to a low diversity and low carbon ecosystem with a fraction of its current social and ecological value.

The burning issue

We know that forest fires are not a natural process in Amazonia, so why are so many fires happening now? Unfortunately, it is not yet clear exactly what has been burning – satellites detecting active fires and smoke are imprecise guides, and we will only get greater clarity when burn scars are accurately mapped across all land uses. But the current increase is likely to be a mix of three different fire types.

Some of the fires are related to a recent spike in deforestation, when the cut vegetation is burned to create cattle ranches and support land claims. Others will be agricultural burns, when fires are used in rotational agriculture or to clear encroaching scrub from existing pasture.

Alarmingly, and even though this dry season is considered normal, there is evidence that these intentional fires have led to wildfires in standing forests, including in indigenous reserves.

Addressing these fires is complex as many of the activities are illegal or politically motivated. For example, there was a marked increase in fire detection during the recent “day of fire”, and loggers or land speculators have previously been implicated in causing wildfires in indigenous reserves. Furthermore, it is important to separate these illegal fires from the small-scale slash-and-burn agriculture used by Amazonia’s traditional and indigenous people. Although these fires can escape into forests, they are also essential for maintaining the livelihoods of some of the Amazon’s poorest people.

Amazon Fires Explained: What Are They, Why Are They So Damaging, And How Can We Stop Them? Aftermath of burning to clear forest for pasture around the town of Novo Progresso in 2006. This region has been at the epicentre of the 2019 fires and reports of an attempt by local ranchers to send a coordinated message to the Brazilian president that they are ready to go to work clearing the forest. Alexander Lees

When fires do enter the forest, they can be fought with low-tech approaches such as fire breaks. Yet effective combat remains rare, and in most cases help is either delayed or fails to arrive at all.

Under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, funds for the Brazilian environmental protection agency IBAMA have been cut by 95%. This has resulted in a R$17.5m reduction in funds for fire fighting that have been exacerbated by the loss of an Amazon Fund from Norway and Germany.

Addressing forest flammability

Reducing wildfires requires going beyond addressing the ignition sources and fighting the flames themselves, and also encouraging actions that limit forest flammability. Tackling deforestation remains key as it exposes forest edges to the hotter and drier microclimate of agricultural land, and contributes to regional reductions in rainfall.

Selective logging also plays a key role in making tropical forests more flammable. Walking in a selectively logged forest in the dry season, you feel the sun’s heat directly on your face and the leaf litter crackles and crunches underfoot. In contrast, unlogged primary forests are a shadier world where the leaf litter remains moist. Fire prevention needs to be a key condition of long-term forest stewardship. This will only work if widespread illegal logging is effectively controlled, as cheaper timber undermines the viability of best-practice forest management.

Finally, climate change itself is making dry seasons longer and forests more flammable. Increased temperatures are also resulting in more frequent tropical forest fires in non-drought years. And climate change may also be driving the increasing frequency and intensity of climate anomalies, such as El Niño events that affect fire season intensity across Amazonia.

Addressing these challenges requires integrated national and global actions, collaboration between scientists and policy makers, and long-term funding – approaches that the current Brazilian administration seems intent on destroying.The Conversation

About The Author

Jos Barlow, Professor of Conservation Science, Lancaster University and Alexander C. Lees, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
1610918495The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert
1250062187Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats

by Gwynne Dyer
1851687181Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Methane Emissions Hit Record Breaking Levels
Methane Emissions Hit Record Breaking Levels
by Josie Garthwaite
Global emissions of methane have reached the highest levels on record, research shows.
kelp forrest 7 12
How The Forests Of The World’s Oceans Contribute To Alleviating The Climate Crisis
by Emma Bryce
Researchers are looking to kelp for help storing carbon dioxide far beneath the surface of the sea.
Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
by Ken Buesseler
The ocean plays a major role in the global carbon cycle. The driving force comes from tiny plankton that produce…
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
by Gabriel Filippelli and Joseph D. Ortiz
“Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” is not what anyone wants to hear about their city’s tap water. But the combined effects of…
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate impasse
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate Impasse
by InnerSelf Staff
Everyone has energy stories, whether they’re about a relative working on an oil rig, a parent teaching a child to turn…
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
by Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko
For millennia, insects and the plants they feed on have been engaged in a co-evolutionary battle: to eat or not be…
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
by Swapnesh Masrani
Ambitious targets have been set by the UK and Scottish governments to become net-zero carbon economies by 2050 and 2045…
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
by Theresa Crimmins
Across much of the United States, a warming climate has advanced the arrival of spring. This year is no exception.

LATEST ARTICLES

Two-thirds Of Glacier Ice In The Himalayas Could Be Lost By 2100
Two-thirds Of Glacier Ice In The Himalayas Could Be Lost By 2100
by Ann Rowan
In the world of glaciology, the year 2007 would go down in history. It was the year a seemingly small error in a major…
Rising Temps Could Kill Millions A Year By Century’s End
Rising Temps Could Kill Millions A Year By Century’s End
by Edward Lempinen
By the end of this century, tens of millions of people could die each year worldwide as a result of temperatures rising…
New Zealand Wants To Build A 100% Renewable Electricity Grid, But Massive Infrastructure Is Not The Best Option
New Zealand Wants To Build A 100% Renewable Electricity Grid, But Massive Infrastructure Is Not The Best Option
by Janet Stephenson
A proposed multibillion-dollar project to build a pumped hydro storage plant could make New Zealand’s electricity grid…
Wind Farms Built On Carbon-rich Peat Bogs Lose Their Ability To Fight Climate Change
Wind Farms Built On Carbon-rich Peat Bogs Lose Their Ability To Fight Climate Change
by Guaduneth Chico et al
Wind power in the UK now accounts for nearly 30% of all electricity production. Land-based wind turbines now produce…
Climate Denial Hasn't Gone Away – Here's How To Spot Arguments For Delaying Climate Action
Climate Denial Hasn't Gone Away – Here's How To Spot Arguments For Delaying Climate Action
by Stuart Capstick
In new research, we have identified what we call 12 “discourses of delay”. These are ways of speaking and writing about…
Routine Gas Flaring Is Wasteful, Polluting And Undermeasured
Routine Gas Flaring Is Wasteful, Polluting And Undermeasured
by Gunnar W. Schade
If you’ve driven through an area where companies extract oil and gas from shale formations, you’ve probably seen flames…
Flight Shaming: How To Spread The Campaign That Made Swedes Give Up Flying For Good
Flight Shaming: How To Spread The Campaign That Made Swedes Give Up Flying For Good
by Avit K Bhowmik
Europe’s major airlines are likely to see their turnover drop by 50% in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,…
Will The Climate Warm As Much As Feared By Some?
Will The Climate Warm As Much As Feared By Some?
by Steven Sherwood et al
We know the climate changes as greenhouse gas concentrations rise, but the exact amount of expected warming remains…