• Ayten Betul Kahya

Amazon Rainforest on Fire Again

A soldier puts out fires in the forest near Novo Progresso, Brazil, in September 2019. (Leo Correa / Associated Press)

The Amazon rainforest is the world’s biggest rainforest and is crucial for the climate as it acts as a major carbon sink, plays a vital role in the global water cycle, and produces an enormous amount of oxygen. Essentially, it acts like the lungs of the earth. However, the Amazon has dramatically been affected by deforestation and forest degradation as 15-17% of the rainforest has already been lost.

In 2019, the Amazon forests had seen what was called to be the worst Amazon fires of the last decade. Unfortunately, the rainforest is suffering from fires again in 2020 at a concerning level for the second consecutive year with tens of thousands of fires. According to NASA’s Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED), in September 2020 the Amazon fires surpassed the fires in 2019 and became the most active fire year since 2012. Experts feared that it may aggravate if the dry season extends. The dry season, which increases fires in the southern Amazon starts in July and continues through November. However, this year’s dry season is more severe than last year’s, that is partially due to moisture being drawn away due to warming in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean.

Scientists are concerned that Amazon is closer to an irreversible cycle of collapse. This can happen when there is an insufficient number of trees to cycle the moisture through the rainforest, which may cause the forest to dry out and turn into a savanna. Paulo Brando, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of California-Irvine states the importance of the issue; “In addition to the area cleared in 2020, we have more than 4000 square km of cleared forests from 2019 that have not been burned yet. A big worry is that if a severe drought develops and make rainforests more flammable, we could soon see one of the worst environmental disasters in the Amazonia during the 21st century.”

Satellite photo shows smoke from fires in the Brazilian Amazon on August 1, 2020


Deforestation and forest degradation are rapidly becoming more pressing concerns globally with the rainforest fires in the Amazon and the major forest fires in Australia and California in the last years coupled with rising global GHG emissions. Scientists, national and international institutions, and organizations are developing innovative methods and approaches for tracking deforestation and fires. These can potentially improve decision making through more accurate data and insights as well as enable better oversight and response that can ultimately help reduce the amount of forest lost. One of the most exciting developments is NASA’s new web-based GFED tool for tracking the Amazon fires in near real-time, which classifies fires in 4 categories (small clearing, agricultural, savanna/grassland, and understory fires). This helps decisionmakers and stakeholders to understand the risk posed to the rainforest, type, and location of the fires that are burning. One of the most remarkable aspects of this web-based tool is that it can detect understory fires, which are among the most destructive types of the Amazon fires as they are generally hidden under tree canopies that satellites were unable to see.

A soldier puts out fires in the forest near Novo Progresso, Brazil, in September 2019. (Leo Correa / Associated Press)

In addition to tracking, reforestation efforts are also vital in ending deforestation and helping nature thrive. There are many forest protection and reforestation initiatives worldwide. In recent years, we are seeing a big momentum around reforestation projects as large-scale implementations have launched such as the UN’s Trillion Tree Campaign and the Trillion Trees joint venture between WWF, BirdLife International, and Wildlife Conservation Society.


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