There is “no way human intervention can put out the fires,” Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, to the Australian Broadcasting Company on the issue of Indonesian wildfires in a recent Weather Channel Report.
Outbreaks of Equatorial wildfires. It’s something that can happen during strong El Ninos. These periods of warming in the Equatorial Pacific can set off a chain of events leading to dangerous heatwaves, droughts and wildfires breaking out all over the Earth’s mid-section.
But put a strong El Nino into the context of the overall human-forced warming of the global environment by 1 C hotter than 1880s values and you start to get into some serious trouble. The added heat amplifies the warming already being set off by El Nino conditions, it worsens droughts, and it provides an environment for some ridiculously intense wildfire outbreaks. Outbreaks of a strength and ferocity we would not have seen had we not forced the world to warm by so much.
(Copernicus’s Atmospheric Monitoring Service [CAMS] shows very intense point source CO2 emissions from wildfires now raging out of control in the Amazon and in Indonesia. These massive fires have been set off due to a combination of poor land use practices and excessive heat and and drought spurred by El Nino and the added heating effect of human-forced climate change. Image source: CAMS.)
Over the past month, very intense and widespread wildfires have been breaking out in two heavily forested Equatorial regions — the Amazon and Indonesia. You can see the point source CO2 emissions for these fires in the CAMS graphic above. And what we see is that current emissions from these wildfires now exceeds that of the massive industrial Northern Hemisphere sources.
In essence, the vast carbon stores contained in the forested regions of the Amazon and Indonesia are burning and releasing into the atmosphere. This burning is due, in substantial part, to the added heat human fossil fuel based industry has forced into the global climate system. Thus, these extraordinary fires are the very definition of an amplifying feedback. And they will likely result in net global carbon emissions from all sources hitting a pretty extreme spike for 2015.
In 1997 Indonesian drought and forest fires increased global CO2 emissions by 13-40 percent. In 2010 Amazon drought and forest fires increased global antropogenic CO2 emissions (energy and land use!) by an estimated 25 percent.
Given these ominous precedents, and given the extent of Equatorial wildfires in rainforest regions this year, we may see increases in global emissions hit or even exceed the ranges mentioned above.
11,000 Forest Fires in Brazil So Far
Last year, during one of Brazil’s worst droughts on record, more than 7,000 wildfires raged over Brazil’s forested regions. The rate of burning was so great that many scientists and environmentalists wondered if human warming was already starting to take down the massive and majestic rainforest — an impact that was not considered likely until the earth warmed up by another 1-3 degrees C on top of the heat forcing we’ve already provided.
But though the Amazon was left smoldering after a terrible drought and wildfire outbreak last year, the damage continued to increase through 2015. By early October, and with nearly 3 months of 2015 still remaining, more than 11,000 wildfires were reported to have burned in Brazil and the Amazon — a 47 percent increase in the number of wildfires from the severe burning of 2014. A stark statistic that will only grow worse as El Nino continues to spike global and Equatorial temperatures into new record ranges. A wretched example of how human-forced climate change can really turn El Nino into a monstrous weather phenomena.
(Smoke from Amazon wildfires visible in the October 18,2015 LANCE MODIS satellite shot. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
As with the ongoing water shortage disaster in Sao Paulo, mainstream media accounts of this massive wildfire outbreak in Brazil have been sparse. However, given the fact that we have a near 50 percent increase in the rate of burning from last year’s terrible base-line, we can only imagine that conditions on the ground in Brazil and in the Amazon are rather dire.
Huge Areas of Indonesia Burning — Some Fires Too Intense to Fight
Though the rate of Amazon burning is massive, but obscure in media reports, similarly immense Indonesia wildfires on the other side of the globe suffer no lack of media attention. Just 24 minutes ago, a report from The Weather Channel cited officials stating that some of the fires in region were now “too intense for human intervention.”
There, fires are so intense that smoke from them has forced the cancellation of flights, school children have been asked to stay home to avoid hazardous air, and the country is calling in firefighting forces from all over the globe. Malaysia, Singapore, and even Russia have contributed firefighting aircraft to the cause. But as of now, there appears little that can be done to help an out of control fire situation that has left a vast region sweltering under a hot, dense cloud of smoke.
“The government has tried hard to extinguish the wildfires across the country,” said Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya in a report to AP, “but it has gotten out of control.”
(NASA Rapid Response MODIS satellite image shows very dense plumes of smoke rising off massive burn areas over Indonesia today. Smoke coverage was so dense that health warnings were issued, flights canceled, and school children sent home. With fires now raging out of control the best hope is the arrival of the mid-November rains. But added Equatorial heat due to El Nino and human-forced warming may force hot, dry conditions to remain in place. Image source: Rapid Response.)
An annual outbreak of wildfires has now become commonplace in Indonesia where corporations illegally burn to clear away forested land for Palm Oil and other crops. This year, record heat and dryness set off by a powerful El Nino acting in combination with human-forced climate change has added yet more danger to the dubious and harmful activity.
Not only are fires now so widespread and intense that they burn completely out of control, but the pall of smoke cast by the fires generates its own fire hazard — helping to prevent rain cloud formation. In total, more than 3,500 hot spots are now visible in the satellite image. In Borneo and Sumatra, more than 4.2 million acres or about 6,500 square miles have burned so far.
The situation is so dire that officials and residents alike are forced to pin their hopes on the seasonal emergence of rains by mid-November. Hopes that may be dashed as a strong El Nino combines with already intense human warming to force ever more extreme conditions.
Hat Tip to both Colorado Bob and DT Lange for their amazing research on the subject