Amazon fire risk on the rise, says NASA
June 09, 2013

The Amazon rainforest is facing a higher risk of fires this dry season, warns a fire prediction system developed by researchers using NASA and NOAA data.

The model is based on an observed correlation between sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and rainfall in the Amazon. High Atlantic temperatures tend to suppress precipitation in the Amazon by driving moisture into the Gulf of Mexico. The result is increased incidence of fire across the southern parts of Earth's largest rainforest.

This year warmer-than-average temperatures in the tropical north Atlantic Ocean suggest an above-average risk for fires this summer and early fall. The Brazilian states of Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia and Acre as well as the Bolivan departments of Santa Cruz and Pando are particularly vulnerable.

Dials indicate regions in the southern Amazon forest predicted to have below-average fire activity (green) and above-average activity (orange and red) during the 2013 dry season, relative to the 2001-2012 mean. Credit: UC Irvine

The model correctly forecast a less active fire season in 2012 when Atlantic temperatures were cooler and Amazon rainfall was higher.

The model's developers, led by Jim Randerson of the University of California at Irvine, are now refining the system to predict flooding. Unusually dry years seem to increasingly alternate with unusually wet years, leading to a drought/fire and flood cycle.

"With this forecasting system we're hoping to build some advanced warning about whether the Amazon region is facing a fire year or a flood year," said NASA's Doug Morton is who works with Randerson's team on the forecasts. "This year, plan for fires."

Rainforest trees in the Amazon aren't well adapted to fire, so even small fires can have a significant impact on forest structure and health. Other research has shown that small surface fires, which burn under the forest canopy, can kill up to 40 percent of trees. The associated die-off can leave the forest drier and more vulnerable to future fires. A study published in April by NASA's Morton and colleagues indicates that up to 3 percent of the Amazon rainforest was affected by such fires between 1999 and 2010.

CITATION: D. C. Morton, Y. Le Page, R. DeFries, G. J. Collatz and G. C. Hurtt. Understorey fire frequency and the fate of burned forests in southern Amazonia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B June 2013 vol. 368 no. 1619 20120163. Published 22 April 2013 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0163

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CITATION: (June 09, 2013).

Amazon fire risk on the rise, says NASA.