The Amazon is burning – here’s what experts have to say

  Last updated August 23, 2019 at 3:53 pm


Wildfires across The Amazon are capturing headlines and scientists are worried it could be disastrous in the fight against climate change.

amazon_amazon fires_climate change

The Global Fire Map shows just how many wildfires are active. Credit: NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS)

Wildfires in The Amazon rainforest – often referred to as the lungs of the planet– are capturing worldwide attention, with the smoke seen from space.

Over 74,000 wildfires have happened this year to date, which scientists say is 85 per cent more than last year. It’s the highest number since the country’s space research centre, National Institute for Space Research, started tracking wildfires in 2013.

Wildfires often occur in the dry season in Brazil.  However, scientists say that human activities such as mining and drilling have made the situation much worse. According to Reuters the fires are also a result of deliberate burning by farmers.

The Amazon produces more than 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen. It’s also home to about three million species of plants and animals and now, scientists are warning that the wildfires could serve as a dramatic blow in the fight against climate change.

Aussie experts have reacted to the news.

Professor William Laurance, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (TESS) at James Cook University

“In earlier decades Brazil was destroying an area of the Amazon rainforest nearly the size of Belgium each year. That cataclysmic loss has dropped since 2006 but is now dramatically rebounding. Most Amazon watchers attribute this to the recent election of President Jair Bolsonaro—the most aggressively pro-development and authoritarian leader in living memory, commonly known as the “Tropical Trump”.

Bolsonaro is effectively declaring a broad-based ‘war on the environment’ and on indigenous peoples and their lands in his efforts to spur unbridled mining, logging, dam and road development in the Amazon. Bolsonaro often brands anyone who opposes him a ‘liar’—including the director of the Brazilian Space Agency (INPE), who he fired last week for daring to release data showing a dramatic rise in Amazon deforestation.

There were nearly 72,000 fires in Brazil in 2019 to date, which is about 85 per cent higher than the same period in 2018. About half of these fires were in the Brazilian Amazon.”

Associate Professor Pete Strutton, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania

“The carbon dioxide released by human activity can be classified as coming from one of two major sources: the burning of fossil fuels or land use change. Once emitted, that CO2 can go into one of three possible sinks. It can stay in the atmosphere, be taken up by the oceans or become stored in the land biosphere.

The fires currently burning in the Amazon are contributing a source of emissions on the land use change side of the equation, and reducing CO2 uptake on the land biosphere sink side.

This process has been observed during strong El Niño events and led to record high observed levels of atmospheric CO2 in 2016. The El Niño forest fires that occur in Asia and South America are in a sense natural.

It appears that the current Amazon fires are not, and they will likely contribute in a detectable way to the global rise in atmospheric CO2.”

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed is Senior Lecturer in Construction Management and Disaster Resilience at the University of Newcastle

“The regular occurrence of wildfires in the Amazon, which has currently reached an unprecedented level, further accelerates the vicious cycle of human-climate interaction.

On one hand, the local pressures of human settlement on this vast, but increasingly fragile, carbon-sink is a key contributing factor to global climate change, on the other hand the huge volume of smoke emitted is adding to the already significant and possibly irreversible level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, accelerating the impacts of climate change.

This event demonstrates clearly that disasters are not ‘natural’ but result from human action on the natural systems. It also points to the transboundary impacts of a disaster occurring in a forest that spans across several countries – the smoke from Bolivia and Rondônia has cast a gloom on São Paulo in Brazil, a city that has been incessantly growing and swallowing up its surrounding natural areas that are so essential for resisting climate change – the vicious cycle is clear.

Two key multi-nation strategies need to be considered for the future – firstly, a mitigation strategy to prevent such disasters from continuing to happen; and secondly, a strategy to repair the severe damage and support long-term rejuvenation of the rainforest.”

Dr Pep Canadell, Research Scientist CSIRO, and Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project

“Although Brazil is indeed going through another intense fire season as reported by their national space agency, NASA’s observatory has reported fire activity slightly below average with regions above the average such as Amazonas and Rondonia, while others below average such as Mato Gross and Para.

Regardless who is right, the intensity of this year’s fire season is not consistent with the expected decline in fires and emissions given the global efforts to reduce deforestation to halt greenhouse emissions and biodiversity loss. Previous administrations had major achievements in reducing deforestation but it seems those gains are being lost.”

Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe is from Griffith University and former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation

“The Amazon forest fires are simply the latest example of a problem that was identified decades ago.

Global warming makes it more likely that vegetation will burn. This should be a serious concern because the burning releases more carbon dioxide, reinforcing the warming rate.

As there are also other sources of positive feedback like shrinking of the Arctic polar ice cap and release of methane from the tundra, we are seeing a dangerous acceleration of climate change.

As the Australian Academy of Science warned years ago, to have a 50 per cent chance of keeping the increase in average global temperature below two degrees, global emissions need to peak by 2020 and then reduce rapidly.

That means it is criminally irresponsible to be actively working to increase emissions, by opening new coal mines or increasing gas production.

It also means we need, as a matter of urgency, to reduce Australia’s local emissions, which are still increasing because the Commonwealth Government is still asleep at the wheel.”


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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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