Amazon Rainforest Wildfires Scorch Through Drought-Plagued Brazil During Southern Hemisphere Winter

It’s Winter. Sections of Brazil are experiencing their worst drought in 84 years. Sao Paulo, a city of 9 million, has 97 days of water supply left. And, again, the Great Rainforest is burning.

Over the past few decades a combination of insults including clear cutting, slash and burn agriculture, and rising instances of heatwaves and drought driven by human-caused climate change has resulted in increasingly severe impacts to forested regions around and within the Amazon. Major fires, which were once almost unheard of in the damp, wet regions of the great Amazon delta first cropped up in the late 1980s and early 1990s but have since become more widespread.

Amazon fire outbreak August 13 2014

(Wildfire outbreak in the Amazon on August 13, 2014. For reference bottom edge of frame is 180 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Now, a combination of basement burning of root systems in the Amazon, heat, and drought are resulting in a kind of existential crisis for a region that has been described by scientists as ‘the Earth’s lungs.’ It is a situation that brings with it the ever-increasing risk of major fire outbreaks. And as of 2012 and 2013, after a period of ever-increasing burning, dry equatorial winters have brought with them extraordinarily severe fires that have torn through forested zones and threatened infrastructure. In one such instance during 2013, a major region-wide blackout was set off by a fire originating in Brazil’s rainforest.

And now the burning has begun anew.

For as of August 13 of this year, large wildfires were erupting within the Amazon near regions of cleared forest and deep within the forest interior. Over the past week, these fires expanded and became more widespread. Now, much of Brazil is under a pall of smoke from wildfires that have expanded to range over a very broad rainforest region.

Brazil Wildfires August 20 2014

(Smoke from wildfires covering almost all of the Amazon on August 20, 2014. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 1,000 miles and the Amazon River flows from middle left until it terminates at upper right into the South Atlantic. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

News media and public reporting of fire instances within Brazil are sketchy. But the satellite picture doesn’t lie. Observational estimates place these fires in the range of 500,000 to 1,500,000 acres initially. But given the fire intensity, they are likely to burn on for weeks to months.

Conditions in Context: 3 Percent of the Amazon Lost To Fire From 1999-2010

The new fires originated in a region now known to harbor ongoing understory fires. These fires burn beneath the interlaced root systems of the Amazon and have been discovered to continue to smolder year-round. During times of intense heat and drought, these fires can break through to the surface and more intensely burn through large swaths of forestland. After burning, they sink back into the understory, waiting for another heat/drought trigger.

Last year, NASA published a study which found that fully 3 percent of the Amazon had likely been lost to fires during the period of 1999-2010. A primary culprit for these losses was found to be understory fires, which NASA identified as a significant threat to the Amazon forest system.

12 million square miles of Amazon burned

(3 percent or 33,500 square miles of a 1.2 million square mile area under investigation burned from 1999-2010 according to a 2013 NASA study. Location of fires indicated in orange.)

Perhaps most significantly, the NASA study implicated climate change as the primary cause for these fires, finding that drought and heatwaves related to increases in human heat trapping gasses had depleted ground moisture levels, resulting in a greatly increased instance of fires.

Post 2010, the satellite record indicates that these fires have continued to grow in intensity. And so the risk to the Amazon expands.

Overall, the Amazon currently stores about 120 gigatons of carbon. It represents about 10% of the global uptake of carbon from the atmosphere through forest tree and plant respiration. But as the Amazon burns and becomes deforested, it shifts from being a carbon absorber to a carbon emitter. Currently, depleted and burning areas of the Amazon are estimated to emit 500 megatons of CO2 each year. And though this has not yet tipped the balance to make the Amazon a net carbon emitter, human climate change and deforestation is driving the world’s largest rainforest rapidly in that direction.

Under human driven climate change and deforestation, the heat and drought situation will only worsen for Brazil. Even without clear cutting, the fires will expand and, eventually, the rainforest will be consumed. Without substantial mitigation action by humans, it is bound to happen. The vast carbon store that is the rainforest will almost certainly begin adding to the already rapacious human heating effect. A process that will continue for decades and will only end once the rainforest is gone entirely.

Links:

Brazil Drought: Sao Paulo Could Run Dry in Less Than 100 Days

NASA Study Shows 3 Percent of Amazon Lost to Fires from 1999 through 2010

LANCE MODIS

Forest and Climate

Effects of High Frequency Understory Fires on The Amazon Rainforest

Fire Spurs Blackout That Shuts off Power for 50 Million

Hat tip to Bernard

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45 Comments

  1. Here we are cannibalizing the rest of the forestry budget to fight fires.

    “The Forest Service’s firefighting appropriation has rapidly risen as a proportion of the Forest Service’s overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today, forcing cuts in other budget areas.”

    “… the average number of fires on Federal lands has more than doubled since 1980 and the total area burned annually has tripled.”

    http://krwg.org/post/new-report-shows-budget-impact-rising-forest-fire-costs

    Reply
    • Griffin

       /  August 21, 2014

      The cost of dealing with the problem is draining the funds away from actions which may help mitigate the effects of the problem. A familiar pattern in many areas of climate impacts.

      Reply
      • Which is why speedy mitigation is needed. The longer you delay action, the fewer options remain in hand.

        It doesn’t help matters that republicans are increasingly unwilling to provide funds for emergency response. They understand it means more pressure to raise taxes on the wealthy. And, ideologically, they’ve come to worship that golden idol, with so many vowing to never raise taxes even if doing so meant the sun exploding. And so we all suffer for their irrational intransigence.

        Reply
    • We have a strange kind of warm air invasion running over the Arctic Ocean in the Laptev bite in the sea ice. 25-40 mph winds means some rather rough seas in the region. The bite is still advancing north.

      Rather odd melt season overall. But they all are recently.

      Reply
      • wili

         /  August 21, 2014

        Do you think that that bight is kind of creating its own weather at this point?

        Reply
        • I think so. There’s a kind of frontal dynamic forming between the ice edge and water zone.

        • There’s air flowing from the warm pool in Siberia, through the double barrel low system in the Laptev, out over the Barents and down into the North Atlantic east of Scandinavia. Wind speeds at 15-35 average through the zone. This should export ice into the Barents and push the sea ice into more of a crescent shape as the ice closer to the North Pole compacts and melts due to wave action and transport. Very odd to see stronger melt in the region closer to Greenland. But we have quite a lot if fresh water in the Beaufort/ESS insulating the ice there.

    • Temps on Arctic Ocean shores at 70 F. 35-40 F ranging pretty far out into the Laptev.

      Looks like a relate lay substantial warm air invasion for late season.

      Reply
      • mikkel

         /  August 21, 2014

        Is it possible that the ice is having a hard time melting because a huge amount of permafrost is?

        Reply
        • Permafrost melt would take a quite a bit of energy and are probably keeping temps lower than they would otherwise be in permafrost regions. That said, the rivers have been dumping on the order of 300 to 500 cu kilometers more water into the Arctic Ocean in recent years. This has changed circulation so that the fresh, surface water current is concentrating in the Beaufort. Outflows from Greenland have primarily gone to Baffin Bay and the North Atlantic and are likely the primary contributor to Gulf Stream weakening there, but we have between 50-100 cu kilometers of fresh water melt coming from North Greenland and the CAA each year now as well. This also helps regenerate the fresh water cap.

          If the fresh water cap is thick, it insulates the surface zone and the ice on top. The ice is fresher by comparison, and this gives the ice about a 2 C buffer for melt. This may not sound like much, but ocean zones are notoriously stable temperature-wise, so every degree C counts quite a bit.

          However, the major factor RE fresh water is that it prevents deep, warm water in the Arctic Ocean from reaching the surface. This reduces heat exchange between the deeper, warmer water in the Arctic and the Atmosphere. It also prevents warm water upwelling and mixing near the sea ice, making the ice more resilient.

          During late summer, a primary factor in melt is the weakened ice, which allows more motion of the surface water near the ice and between the ice floes. This enhanced physical transport provides access to the deeper, warmer water during this time. However, if the fresh water layer is thicker, the warmer water has less avenues to reach the surface and melt the ice.

          In this way, the fresh water layer also reduces atmospheric temperatures above the surface of the water as less heat from the deep Arctic water hits the atmosphere. This dynamic is rather well understood by Ocean and Atmosphere systems scientists, so I’m surprised there hasn’t been more investigation of the phenomena in the Arctic.

    • Greenland also looking rather warm for this time of year. Wondering if the polar amplification effect is already starting to kick in a little.

      Reply
  2. Griffin

     /  August 21, 2014

    I don’t know about anyone else but the thought of fire in the Amazon just really messes with my head. It is just supposed to rain there. Not burn. It is a mysterious place in my mind, filled with giant trees and animals living high in the canopy. A wet, dank and dark floor with so many things crawling and sprouting and searching for rays of the sun. To have it be anything else is like living on another planet.

    Reply
    • The place is slowly drying out under the added heat forcing. As it dries, it burns.

      Reply
      • Mark from New England

         /  August 21, 2014

        It’s always been a dream of mine to visit the Amazon. But knowing the carbon impact of a flight there may keep me an armchair naturalist when it comes to going there. I’m fortunate in having experienced tropical forests in Central America in the late 80’s. The birds and wildlife were, and are, utterly unique and amazing. Lots of big insects and spiders though, which I wasn’t so keen about!

        Reply
      • wili

         /  August 21, 2014

        And as it burns, it dries. The Amazon is one area that does definitely ‘make its own climate’ iirc. But as it is manually destroyed, it is starting to make a very different climate.

        Reply
      • Not going there might be the wisest choice. John Oliver had a funny similar message on the Last Week Tonight show about going to Antarctica:

        Reply
  3. Mark from New England

     /  August 21, 2014

    “Even without clear cutting, the fires will expand and, eventually, the rainforest will be consumed. Without substantial mitigation action by humans, it is bound to happen. The vast carbon store that is the rainforest will almost certainly begin adding to the already rapacious human heating effect. A process that will continue for decades and will only end once the rainforest is gone entirely”.

    This is utterly catastrophic. One of the lushest and most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet will become but a shadow of its former self. Millions of species of plants and animals will face the maw of extinction. And we probably don’t even realize 10% of what’s at stake – a cure for cancer in the leaves of an as yet undiscovered plant, perhaps? Somehow, we can’t let this happen…

    Reply
    • Rapid mitigation, rapid adoption of replacement renewables, and atmospheric carbon capture. We’ll probably need a global power shift to do it.

      Reply
      • Griffin

         /  August 21, 2014

        And somehow we must teach those around us what they are not willing to learn.

        Reply
        • It would be nice if it could be achieved before widespread hunger starts taking hold, before the storms get too much worse, before global wealth takes another hit or two or three.

    • I view it as a shift from forest to savanna or other ecological zone. I perceive the same occurring in other regions. In order enable a new ecology, the old one must be removed. Thus forests burn, grasslands shift to desert, northern forest shifts to semi arid deserts and grasslands. I suspect we are observing these shifts as they occur in fast forward. Normally, these events are on a scale that can’t be observed so easily. The knock on effect due to the rapid pace causing the occupants (plants, animals, insects) to flee if possible or perish.

      Local food chains are being disrupted due to invasive species is what we see, I wonder how much of that is actually the actions of food chain refugees.

      Reply
      • Looking at the drought models, it appears the region is heading for grass and desert. Perhaps more desert and less grass.

        Reply
      • wili

         /  August 22, 2014

        Most of the organic matter in these forests is in the trees. So when the trees go, there is only a fairly thin film of soil that can support agriculture or pasturage for a few years before it is also gone. Most of the lush Amazon rain forest will become desert.

        Reply
  4. Robert, a small correction to your reference to 3rd image (understorey fires). 1.2 square miles of Amazon forest did NOT burn, it was a study area. As the linked SD ardicle claims:

    “The study shows that between 1999 and 2010, understory forest fires burned more than 33,000 square miles (85,500 square kilometers), or 2.8 percent of the forest.” — that is STILL a sidnificant area…

    best,

    Alex

    Reply
  5. Robert,

    After reading you observation regarding air flowing from Laptev over to Scandinavia I hopped over to null school and took a glance. Below Laptev in Russia it appears as though there is no discernible jet stream there. Same observation on climate reanalyzer. I appears very weak and has a lack of a explicit boundary line.

    Is that odd or a normal seasonal behavior anyone?

    Reply
  6. Apneaman

     /  August 22, 2014

    Here in Vancouver dead leaves have been falling for weeks now; my yard is covered. The last few days have felt and smelled like fall. First moved here in 1976. This is not “Normal”

    Reply
    • The leaves on some trees are also falling in Gaithersburg, MD hundreds of miles to the south. Bad winter on the way. My bet is for rough weather.

      Reply
    • Bernard

       /  August 22, 2014

      What species of tree? Over here the chestnuts are shedding but it’s due to leafminers. Every leaf on every tree is 3/4 chewed up from the inside.

      Reply
      • NOx/ozone related?

        Reply
        • The most pernicious impact of ozone pollution for plants is that they become more susceptible to attacks from biotic pathogens, partially because ozone is caustic and literally eats away at the protective waxy coating on leaves and needles and most seriously because trees and other plants just become weakened – as though have AIDS, they lose natural immunity. One scientists called this the “sharks that smell blood in the water and it is a well-known and intensely researched phenomena in agriculture. Insects, disease and fungus are now epidemics on just about any species you can name, all over the world. And it’s not from invasive species – if it were, it would have started long ago because people have been shipping exotic nursery stock all over for centuries, not to mention wood and sawdust packing for other items of trade. So we have citrus greening killing orange trees in Florida (http://www.techtimes.com/articles/13947/20140825/greening-disease-threatens-florida-citrus-industry.htm), bark beetles killing trees everywhere, coffee plants threatened with a virus, a bug/fungus combo attacking an astonishing 200 species of trees in SoCal (http://www.latimes.com/science/la-sci-beetle-trees-20140530-story.html#page=1) and basil blight killing the herb in NH (http://www.vnews.com/home/13199351-95/basil-blight-wipes-out-crop-at-nh-farm) and this is just a tiny, tiny sampling of what is occurring globally. We can say goodbye to fruit, nuts, lumber, shade and many other products long before climate change kills of vegetation.

    • Tom

       /  August 22, 2014

      Apneaman: I’ve been picking up crinkled, desiccated, discolored, and sometimes fresh green leaves still attached to small branches all summer long here in PA. This is the 2nd year it’s happened and nobody notices or is concerned other than myself (afaik). The trees are noticeably “thinning” too – nowhere near as leafed out as they used to be, and the pines are visibly in decline. Last week I had to remove a large branch that had fallen (about 5″ in diameter and about 20′ long, with all green leaves) from the property. I could see that it recently broke off, but with no storms or high winds I was at a loss as to a cause. The trees around here are at least 110′ tall and have been here for quite a while, but they’re all showing signs (like lichen on the trunks, dry crowns with no leaves, etc) of decline. It’s beyond sad.

      Reply
      • Sounds like you describe well known effects on trees (especially) from ground level ozone, which has gone up dramatically growth in diesel combustion which releases NOx.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NOx

        “NOx reacts with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to form ozone. Ozone can cause adverse effects such as damage to lung tissue and reduction in lung function mostly in susceptible populations (children, elderly, asthmatics). Ozone can be transported by wind currents and cause health impacts far from the original sources. The American Lung Association estimates that nearly 50 percent of United States inhabitants live in counties that are not in ozone compliance.”

        http://www.epa.gov/groundlevelozone/ecosystem.html

        “Ozone also affects sensitive vegetation and ecosystems, including forests, parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. In particular, ozone harms sensitive vegetation, including trees and plants during the growing season.”

        I doubt many are aware of the dangers of diesel, its really a type of fuel that should be banned in use for normal cars.

        Reply
      • Oh yes, you are seeing the severe damage that air pollution is doing to the landscape. I have been photo documenting this on the US west coast for some time. As has Gail Zawacki, in the east.
        Obvious problems like: severe leaf scorch, leaves that look like they have been chemically flash baked or fried, crown die-back, sparse canopies, ozone burns — and massive leaf, fruit, frond, seed, blossom dead-falls. Tree trunks and branches with dense growths of mosses and lichens from an overabundance of aerosol nitrogen (NOX). Trees, leaves, branches, and flower blossoms that look like they have been embalmed with tanning fluid (tannins).
        Groups of trees, or plants, of the same age and species — one ones nearer the traffic pollution are dead, or dying, while the ones further away survive. Branches hanging over a street will vs the rest of the tree, fare the same.
        Our air is a toxic, and phytotoxic (plant killer) soup from a myriad of sources. Plant tissue is sensitive. The air pollution which injures plant tissue also harms human tissue. The plant just show it first.

        I am trying to get attention to it here in Portland, OR. A city that ‘loves’ its trees.

        A quick history: I saw a cascade of these problems in Santa Barbara, CA, a couple of years ago.
        In spring 2010, I warned (with photos) the city government and and media that black soot and traffic dust was now covering every inch of the landscape. Denials, abstractions, and distractions was usual reply, “We can’t regulate it.” or “People don’t want to hear bad news”.
        The next autumn, palm fronds, and maple leaves would fall to the sidewalk leaving a dense pile, or imprint, of black dust.
        The following spring/summer, the new growth of those same maple trees fell en mass. Though still green, they were brittle,or crinkled up, like they had been flash baked.
        Over the next few months, all hell broke loose. Figs, or ficus, dropped en mass. Palm fronds with seed/flower pods still attached dropped on every block. Avocado trees lost leaves in their crowns, fruit fell with smoldering blisters. This happened with many fruits.
        This just a sample. But Santa Barbara, over the course of about nine months, must have lost ten to fifteen percent of its foliage. I lived in that town for 30 years, and suddenly I could see sights, and hear far away sounds that I never saw of heard before — because the foliage was gone.
        So, I left SB in late 2012, and am now in PDX.
        To view photos of trees, etc, under assault by air pollution see my photo essay blog:
        http://windspiritkeeper.blogspot.com/
        Various menus of topics..

        Reply
  7. And there is the cruel irony that trees are actively promoted because they capture air pollution. These dead, and dying trees are graphically proving this.

    Reply
  8. Hi,
    I’ve been reading this blog for some time, but never commented, as, well, most of the discussion in the comments here is well over my league.

    But there’s one point about those fires in the Amazon that I’m well aware off (my work in Brasil is as a criminologist of our Federal Police, fighting environmental crimes. Though my base is in São Paulo and most of my work is in the Atlantic Rain Forest Biome, not in Amazonia, I’ve worked there a few times too ).

    Most of those fires are INTENCIONAL. It’s the current trend in deforestation and land grabbing (those things are rarely done in land that already lawfully belongs to the one doing those crimes) in Amazonia. As satellite imagery became an everyday tool for fighting deforestation, criminals changed their behavior so that it would be more difficult to see from above.

    Now, most of the big deforestation processes begin by “selective deforestation”, which involves keeping the tallest trees up, so that the uppermost shield of leaves occults the destruction in the understory. Valuable wood is cut and sold, but after that, what’s left is burned (cutting all the wood would be a lot of work, and criminals are lazy). After that, exotic grasses are sown, so that they’ll smother any baby trees, and cattle is added to the area, to devour said baby trees. The forest cover will dwindle, but the process will last for about 3 years, instead of months, and the area will have less chance of being marked for close inspection (and the Amazonia is HUGE and if there’s no motive for the locale to be inspected it won’t be).

    This is a criminal process, it’s normally done to steal public lands, BUT, if the deforester is not caught in 10 years (and a lot of them aren’t), he’ll be able to claim the land as his own. In that time, the land will probably seem to be a thriving soy farm (cattle is a part of the process, as the famished cows that people thrown in those “farms” don’t produce enough to really be lucrative. The money comes from the land grabbing and soy monoculture). In those first years, erosion hasn’t destroyed the soil yet, and soy, as a legume, can thrive in relatively bad land. The beautiful soy farm will then be sold to some idiot that doesn’t known that the soy has been depleted for years, the deforester will have made his money and he’ll move on to politics and/or a new area, and keep making money while leaving destruction. This is so prevalent in the Amazonia that there’s a expression for that: boom and bust economy.

    But the point is: those fires aren’t there just because the forest is dry because of Climate Change. Amazonia already had a (relatively) dry season before, and even ancient indigenous people used fire in their burn/slash agriculture. Now the dry season is longer, and the fires are lasting longer too, but the dry season isn’t the reason for those fires. They aren’t being created by lightning or something like that. They’re being started by humans, because of greed.

    Since this is my first comment and will probably already be moderated anyway, these photos (they are from one of my times in Amazonia) illustrate the matter:
    From above (helicopter distance):
    Sao_Felix_Xingu-corte_seletivo-01

    Same area, in the ground:
    Sao_Felix_Do_Xingu-Corte_seletivo-05

    And that deforestation probably has a lot of influence in the drought here in Southeast Brasil. The Amazon forest pumps water that normally fuels the rain around here, and that pump is being destroyed:
    http://riosvoadores.com.br/english/

    Reply
  1. São Paulo, seca de Inverno; Lisboa, inundação de Verão: É Aquecimento Global ou Macumba? | Aquecimento Global Descontrolado
  2. “Too Furious For Human Intervention” — Climate Feedbacks Spur Out of Control Wildfires From Indonesia to Brazil | robertscribbler

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