A Record Number of Fires Are Currently Burning Across the Amazon Rainforest

Mahita Gajanan

The Amazon rainforest has seen a record number of forest fires this year, according to Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, a space research center. The INPE detects and tracks fires through satellites — in other words, the current blazes are large enough that, collectively, they are visible from space.

The INPE said Tuesday that it has so far detected an 83% increase from the same time period in 2018, Reuters reports. It’s the highest number of fires recorded since 2013, when record-keeping began. The space research agency said satellite images have spotted 9,507 new fires since Thursday in the Amazon basin. As of Wednesday morning, 74,155 fires have been detected in Brazil, according to the INPE’s burn data, which provides daily updates of the number of fire outbreaks detected.

Images show Roraima, Brazil’s northernmost state located in the Amazon, covered in smoke, Reuters reports. Neighboring Brazilian state Amazonas has declared an emergency in its southern part, while the state Acre, which borders Peru, was put on environmental alert on Aug. 16 because of the fires. Some fires have been burning for more than two weeks.

The surge in fires comes amid growing concerns over Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s rollback of environmental protections. The INPE reports the new record just weeks after Bolsonaro fired the agency’s director over conflict regarding its data on deforestation.

The BBC reports smoke from the fires caused a blackout Monday in São Paulo.

The fires in the Amazon come at a time when parts of the world long considered essential in the fight against climate change are also going up in flame. Wildfires have broken out across the Arctic, including in Siberia, Greenland and Alaska, where millions of acres have been burned.

Under Bolsonaro’s administration, Brazil has aimed to roll back some of its longtime policies protecting the Amazon — a massive carbon reserve essential to fighting the effects of global warming — by pulling back on efforts that combat illegal logging, ranching and mining in the rainforest, the New York Times reports.

Part of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign platform included promising to open access to Brazil’s protected lands for commercial use. Less than a year into his term, the Amazon in Brazil has lost over 1,330 square miles of forest cover, marking a 39% increase from the same time period in 2018. The fires have spread in areas that have seen a lot of deforestation, such as the states of Mato Grosso and Para, according to Reuters.

The increased rate of fires is connected to the uptick in deforestation in a number of ways, says Deborah Lawrence, an environmental sciences professor at the University of Virginia. Deforestation involves clearing trees for land usage to transform an area of the rainforest into a pasture or a field; to do that, fire is required to burn through the extra woody material.

But deforestation also hinders the hydrological cycles controlled by the Amazon, according to Lawrence. Trees in the Amazon rainforest move water into the atmosphere from the soil, which provides rainfall elsewhere in the forest.

Darkened skies in Sao Paulo, seen on Monday, August 19. Residents of this metropolis of millions recently reported black rain. Studies by two universities confirmed that the rainwater contains fire residues. | Andre Lucas—AP Images

“If you clear forests, you change that dynamic,” Lawrence says. “There’s no trees to pump moisture into the atmosphere. Rain fall is going to either settle into the soil and stay there, or, if there’s a lot, run off into rivers and end up far away.”

Bolsonaro has blamed the uptick in fires on the season, saying it is the time of of year when farmers will deliberately set fires to clear space for land. “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada,” he said, according to Reuters. (Queimada is “burned” in Portuguese.)

While forest fires can occur during Brazil’s dry season, experts say the high number of fires seen this year could not just be blamed on the time of year—and note that the Amazon, as a rainforest, does not, own its own, see the same kind of wildfires that are perceived as more natural events in drier places like California. The kind of fires happening now come from deforestation and rising temperatures felt worldwide.

“Trees, if they’re stressed out by heat repeatedly, are more susceptible to other kinds of damage,” Lawrence says. “There’s persistent chronic stresses, and a hot summer, and both are combining to provide kinder for lots of fires.”

Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian climate scientist and expert in tropical forests, tells TIME the number of fires this year is even higher than in 2016, when Brazil suffered its worst drought in decades and saw an outbreak of more than 68,000 fires. Beyond the combined effects of climate change and deforestation are the political and cultural implications. Bolsonaro and other Brazilian politicians have empowered people to clear the land they want as part of what they see as a battle against those who want to preserve the Amazon. Culturally, agricultural growth is measured by land expansions, not by the number of cattle or crops produced, he says. That further encourages people toward seeking more land.

“Most of the increasing supply to meet growing demands comes from increase in the agricultural area,” he says.

Without a policy that totally ends deforestation, Nobre says the Amazon will reach a tipping point—if 25% of the forest is removed in deforestation, the lack of trees combined with global warming will completely change the rainfall systems, leading to climate that’s similar to a savannah for more than half the forest. Nobre, who published his findings in a 2016 study, says that at the current rate of deforestation, the Amazon is set to hit that point in 25 to 30 years.

If deforestation picks up — as the latest spate of fires appears to indicate is happening — it will be just 15 to 20 years.

“This is very sad,” Nobre says. “We usually would see this surge of fire in very, very exceptionally dry years. The fact that this record-breaking figure comes out in a relatively un-dry dry season shows that deforestation is increasing.”