It’s official. In terms of economic damage and human displacement, the 2015 Indonesian wildfires are the worst that Island nation has ever experienced. Worse than even the terrible 1997 wildfires and possibly the worst wildfire disaster ever. And it’s all an upshot of what happens when slash and burn agriculture meets a once lush land now sweltering in a human hothouse world.
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There’s been something dreadfully wrong with Indonesia’s forests and peatlands ever since massive fires ignited across that island nation back in 1997. Back then, a monster El Nino — combined with heat from massive human greenhouse gas emissions — pushed the world to 0.7 to 0.8 C hotter than 1880s averages. Equatorial temperatures would never again fall to a normal threshold. And as the lands and surrounding oceans warmed, the dry season lengthened and the rainy season shortened.
Slash and burn agriculture, a mainstay practice for the region ever since industrial farms began to take root there in the middle 20th Century, always generated some fires. But before human greenhouse emissions brought on added heat and dryness, the situation was one of slow degradation rather than violent conflagration. Even during the dry season, mid-to-late 20th Century moisture levels were much higher and fires tended to be naturally suppressed by the lush wetness of the region. But now, with the added heat of human warming creating droughts in the peatlands, slash and burn agriculture essentially amounted to throwing burning embers into a powder keg.
(Kuala Lumpur, Maylasia swelters under peat-fire smog during late September of 2015. Ever since 1997, Indonesia has suffered severe seasonal wildfires. These fires are often set by corporate and individual farmers who use the fires to clear land. However, increased heat and drought caused by an increasingly vicious human-forced warming of the globe are creating a climate in which these fires, once set, tend to rage out of control. Image source: ALERT.)
As the heatwaves and droughts lengthened with amplifying human-forced warming, wildfires became endemic. Each year, the farmers burned more peatlands. Each year, the peatlands belched toxic smoke into the air, burning deeper and deeper into the carbon-rich ground, adding to and compounding the problem of human fossil fuel emissions and causing mass sickness and hospitalizations. In this dangerous new equatorial hothouse climate, even under the rains, the ground still smoldered, waiting for the longer, hotter dry seasons to return before again erupting into flame. All throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the situation worsened as temperatures back-filled into the new upper range set by the 1997 El Nino and then advanced still further.
Now, human greenhouse gas emissions are again amplifying peak global temperatures as a Monster El Nino that threatens to be worse than the 1997 event is sweltering the globe. Now temperatures worldwide are hitting 1 to 1.2 C above 1880s averages. And now the Indonesia wildfires are growing from an annual nation-spanning disaster, to an epic conflagration that threatens to destabilize an entire region.
The Worst Fire on Record, Again
To say that the Indonesian fires this year have been bad may well be the understatement to end all understatements. As of mid October more than 100,000 individual fires had been reported. By late October, damages to the Indonesian economy were estimated to have reached 30 billion dollars (or more than six times the economic impact of the 1997 wildfires). More than 6,000 schools were closed as an international firefighting effort involving an army of 22,000 firefighters proved inadequate to contain the massive-country spanning blazes.
An entire nation fell choking under black, gray, or toxic yellow skies. 500,000 people were reported sick. But not one person among the affected regions’ 43 million residents could pass a day without feeling the dark fingers of the peat smoke squeezing into their chest and lungs, doing untold future damage.
Thousands of miles away, places like Guam were forced to issue air quality alerts as the massive Indonesian smoke cloud was swept across vast swaths of ocean by storms or other weather systems. Indonesia’s peat fire smoke had now become a toxic export and neighboring nations were not at all happy at the vast, dark clouds spreading out from the burning lands.
(Satellite shot of a smoke covered Indonesia on October 26 of 2015. Due to a combination of human forced warming of the globe and a Monster El Nino, Indonesia’s current record spate of wildfires could continue to burn until December. As of now, extremely hazardous air quality has Indonesian officials planning mass evacuations from smoke filled regions to hospitals and even to ships off shore. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
The situation has gotten so bad that Indonesia has now set in place mass evacuation plans for the hardest hit regions. The government has distributed 7,000 air purifiers as part of its ‘shelter in place’ program. But for those who simply cannot manage the stifling airs, authorities are planning for transport into hospitals and, if that doesn’t work, to military, hospital, and converted cruise vessels waiting off shore. Government actions, in this case, speak louder than the official words. What they may as well be saying is that, for an ever-growing number of Indonesian citizens, human-forced climate change and slash and burn agriculture has rendered the land uninhabitable.
A Crime Against Humanity
Sutopo Puro Nugroho, the spokesperson for the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency neatly summed it up by stating: “This is a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions…” The official then went on to state that now was not the time to point fingers. Now was the time to attempt to save lives.
And he’s right. The time to point fingers was years and years ago, before this disaster began to fully unfold. Back then, in the late 20th Century we had a chance to address the endemic corruption of political and economic systems made to depend on dangerous and amoral industries. But at least now we can acknowledge what should have been said long ago — slash and burn agriculture, in this case, joins with the fossil fuel industry to form what could best be described as a global climate crimes syndicate. One whose dark fruits are now coming into an ugly ripeness over Indonesia.
For this year, there’s no neat end in sight. This year, the rainy season may be delayed until at least December. And until that time the hothouse stoked, slash and burn lit fires will continue to belch their awful fume, continue to stifle Indonesia’s inhabitants, continue to add more greenhouse gasses to an already sweltering atmosphere. That is, until the rains do come. And when they do, it’s just a six month wait for another ridiculous burning season, a 1-6 year wait for another new fire-worsening global temperature record, and a 7-20 year wait for another monster El Nino. In the end, the final wait until all of Indonesia’s peatlands are burned may be as little as 30-100 years. A once lush and forested land turning to ruin before our very eyes.
Hat Tip to Colorado Bob
Hat Tip to DT Lange
Hat Tip to Greg