Brazil’s emissions are the seventh highest in the world, and they come mostly from what is called land-use change in the Amazon, a polite word meaning deforestation. The land is cleared, usually by setting fires, for logging, farming and cattle grazing. The Amazon biome is heading for a devastating fire season as dieback, or the process in which the forest dries out, storing less carbon, producing less rainfall, and worsening global warming.
Scientists from the NASA and at the University of California have warned that lower rainfall in the Amazon basin because of the 2015-2016 El Niño phenomenon’s climate effects means that this region is even drier than it was in 2005 and 2010, which were years of unprecedented drought.
For 2016, El Niño-driven conditions are far drier than 2005 and 2010 – the last years when the region experienced drought. The team has also developed a web tool to track the evolution of the Amazon fire season in near real time. Estimated fire emissions from each forecast region are updated daily, based on the relationship between active fire detections – made by the Moderate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA's Terra satellite – and fire emissions data from the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) in previous years. So far, however, the region has seen more fires to date than those years, another indicator that aligns with the fire severity forecast.
"When trees have less moisture to draw upon at the beginning of the dry season, they become more vulnerable to fire, and evaporate less water into the atmosphere," said UC-Irvine scientist Jim Randerson, who collaborated with UC-Irvine scientist Yang Chen on building the forecast model. "This puts millions of trees under stress and lowers humidity across the region, allowing fires to grow bigger than they normally would."
Fires in the Amazon have local, regional, and long-distance impacts. Agricultural fires that escape their intended boundaries can damage neighboring croplands and Amazon forests. Even slow-moving forest fires cause severe forest degradation, as Amazon rainforest trees are not adapted to fire. Together, intentional fires for agricultural management, deforestation, and wildfires generate massive smoke plumes that degrade regional air quality, exacerbating problems with asthma and respiratory illness. Smoke from Amazon fires eventually flows south and east over major urban centers in southern Brazil, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, contributing to air quality concerns.
According to Survival International, forest fires are “raging” in Indigenous Awá territory on the edge of the Brazilian Amazon in Peru, and “threatening to wipe out uncontacted members of the Awá tribe.”
Small groups of Guajajara Indians, the Awá’s neighbors in the Amazon, reportedly battled the blaze for days without the assistance of government agents until Brazil’s Environment Ministry launched a fire-fighting operation two weeks ago.
According to Survival International, nearly 50 percent of the forest cover in the territory was destroyed by forest fires started by loggers in late 2015, and the Environment Ministry has warned that the situation is “even worse this year.”
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