Fire hotspots in Brazil, June 1998 - September 2017. Graphic: INPE

By Sue Branford and Maurício Torres
11 October 2017

(Mongabay) – Figures from the Brazilian government’s INPE (National Institute of Space Research) show that 2017 is shaping up to be the worst year on record for forest fires: 208,278 were detected by 5 October 2017. Alberto Setzer, who runs INPE’s fire monitoring department, told Mongabay that 2017 was now on course to overtake 2004, until now the year with the most fires, when 270,295 were detected. More fires were seen in September of this year (110,736) than in any previous month in the 20 years that INPE has been recording fires.

Two rural districts in Pará state had the highest number of fires in the Amazon biome: 9,786 in São Félix do Xingu and 6,153 in Altamira up to the end of last month. The increase of fires in the whole of Pará has been astonishing: INPE figures show that there were 24,949 just in September, a six-fold increase compared with 3,944 recorded in the same month last year. In fact, 29,316 fires were recorded in all of last year for the Amazonian state.

While there is a high level of drought this year, it is clear that something other than dry conditions is driving the record number of wildfires. Setzer told Mongabay that the fires almost everywhere have a common characteristic: they are manmade.

Disturbed Amazon areas see worst burns

INPE, which has a sophisticated system for monitoring fires, has built up an impressive archive of satellite images of the damage done by the fires. This archive shows that the wildfires have increasingly been spreading into protected forests. Over fifty conserved areas have been impacted this year, almost twice the number damaged last year. And the list includes some of Brazil’s iconic nature parks.

Araguaia National Park is a highly important protected area on the island of Bananal in southwest Tocantins state. Covering 558,000 hectares (1.4 million acres), it is home to threatened species like the giant otter and jaguar, and stands out as an oasis in the midst of the parched savanna vegetation of the Cerrado that surrounds it. Earlier this month one of Brazil’s leading TV shows, the Fantástico programme on Globo TV, showed powerful images of the national park being devoured in flames. In all, 70 percent of it was destroyed.

Out-of-control fires have affected cattle ranches as well. In the region of Carmolândia in the north of Tocantins a fierce fire raced across eight farms, killing over a thousand cattle. Almost everywhere, fire brigades have been too poorly staffed and equipped to control the blazes.

Aerial view of burned trees in the Xingu forest in Brazil, October 2017. Photo: O Globo

2017 dry, but not a record drought

Setzer explained that when much of the vegetation is dry — the result of a prolonged drought, as happened this year — wildfires can rapidly race out of control. “In some areas of the center-west of Brazil, there hasn’t been a drop of rain for four months.”

Even so, the 2017 drought may not turn out to be exceptional. “It does not look as if the drought this year will be as severe as in 2005, 2007, 2010, and 2015/2016,” Luiz Aragão, Senior Lecturer in Earth Systems Science at Exeter University, UK, told Mongabay.

However, he added, his analysis was based on past oceanic conditions which could still change, with the 2017 drought getting worse: “This happened in 2015 when the drought intensified from October till December, but this is not usual in the Amazon.”

What seems to be occurring, he said, is that the Amazonian climate is changing — what was once regarded as an exceptional drought there, is now becoming more accepted as normal. “The dry seasons in Brazil seem to be becoming drier and more frequent,” explained Aragão, just as forecast by climate modelling, and as observed by scientists. [more]

Record Amazon fires stun scientists; sign of sick, degraded forests



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