Brazil has seen 100,000 fire alerts in 10 days, but it’s not just the Amazon

Scientists have recorded more than 76,000 fires in Brazil so far this year, but the problem isn't confined to one country.

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Scientists have recorded more than 76,000 fires in Brazil so far this year, but the problem isn’t confined to one country.

Many other parts of South America are burning, too.

Global Forest Watch, an organization sponsored by the World Resources Institute, monitors forests and track fires using satellite data. The group reported more than 109,000 fire alerts in Brazil between August 13 and yesterday, but its map of current blazes (below) shows fires in many other regions as well.

Amazon Fires
This map shows every fire that has started burning since August 13, 2019 across central South America.

So far this year, Brazil’s neighbor, Bolivia, has experienced more than 17,400 fires. Paraguay, to the south, has had just under 10,000 and Colombia, to the north, 14,000.

While not pictured on the Global Forests Watch map, Venezuela has experienced the second-highest number of fires in 2019: 26,500. That’s one-third of Brazil’s total.

Brazil, meanwhile, has seen more fires in 2019 than in any year since researchers began keeping track in 2013 — and there are still four months to go. Since August 15, more than 9,500 new forest fires have started across Brazil, primarily in the Amazon basin. Year over year, that’s an 83% increase in fires, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reported.

Human-driven devastation

The fires in Brazil aren’t a natural disaster: Environmentalists and researchers say humans are to blame.

“The important thing to know about the Amazon is that few fires occur there naturally,” Mikaela Weisse, who tracks deforestation and fires for the World Resources Institute, told Vice.

About 99% of Amazon fires start from human actions, “either on purpose or by accident,” Alberto Setzer, a senior scientist at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), told CNN. Setzer said farmers often set the forest ablaze to clear land for agriculture.

Those fires can then get out of control.

A firefighter works during a wildfire near Robore, Santa Cruz region, eastern Bolivia on August 22, 2019. - Up to now, wildfires in Bolivia have devastated about 745,000 hectares of forests and pasturelands. Neighboring Peru, which contains much of the Amazon basin, announced it was
A firefighter works near Robore, Bolivia on August 22, 2019. Wildfires in Bolivia have devastated about 745,000 hectares of forests and pasture lands.

In total, the fires have created a layer of smoke estimated to be 1.2 million square miles wide which can be seen from space. The smoke plumes from blazes in the Amazon have spread far from the state of Amazonas — on Monday, smoke blotted out the sun in São Paulo, a city more than 2,000 miles away.

As the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon plays a crucial role in keeping our planet’s carbon-dioxide levels in check. Plants and trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the air in the process of photosynthesis. This is why the Amazon, which covers 2.1 million square miles, is often referred to as the “lungs of the planet”: The forest produces between 6% and 20% of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA Terra_MODIS satellite image_21August2019
A NASA satellite image shows the fires raging across Brazil and the Amazon basin on August 21, 2019.

But when trees burn, they release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, and that further fuels climate change.

“The Amazon is incredibly important for our future, for our ability to stave off the worst of climate change,” Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch, told CNN. “This isn’t hyperbole. We’re looking at untold destruction — not just of the Amazon but for our entire planet.”

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