- Fires in the Brazilian Amazon surged in August to the highest for the month since 2010, surpassing the blazes in August 2019 that drew global attention.
- On Aug. 22 alone, more than 3,300 fire alerts were reported in 24 hours, the worst single-day tally in the Amazon in 15 years.
- Researchers say it’s still too early to tell how severe this fire season will be, but what happened in August is an early warning.
Towns in the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Pará have experienced a recent bout of skies overcast with thick clouds of smoke, the result of fires raging in the Amazon Rainforest. The forest fires peaked in the last few weeks after hitting a new historical record. For the month of August, there were 33,116 fires in the Amazon, according to INPE, Brazil’s national space research institute. That’s the highest number for the month since 2010, with the largest concentration of burning in the southern region of the biome.
On Aug. 22 alone, as President Jair Bolsonaro was declaring in a television interview with the Globo network that Brazil’s reputation as a forest destroyer was unwarranted, more than 3,300 fire alerts were recorded in 24 hours, the worst single-day tally in 15 years. It was three times as many as during the infamous “Day of Fire” on Aug. 10, 2019, which became a milestone in the history of the destruction of the rainforest. On that occasion, farmers in Pará colluded to start illegal fires in several spots across the region.
Record-breaking fires have become business as usual in recent years, particularly under Bolsonaro, who took office at the start of 2019. His administration has been marked by decade-high spikes in deforestation rates and fires in the Amazon. In June this year, for example, the Brazilian Amazon saw the highest number of fires for the month since 2007, with 2,562 major fires detected — an increase of 11% over June 2021. There were no new records broken in July, though the 5,373 fires reported were still up by 9% from July 2021.
A similar trend has played out in Brazil’s other biomes. Since May 2022, fires have raged in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, including inside Pantanal do Rio Negro State Park, a protected reserve rich in biodiversity. These fires followed devastating blazes in 2020 and 2021, which consumed vast parts of the biome and threatened a wealth of wildlife.
Early warning of fire season
Historically, the period from August to October sees a decline in rainfall and is considered the fire season in the Amazon. Unlike in the temperate forests of the U.S. West and other high-latitude forests, fire isn’t a natural phenomenon in the Amazon. Naturally occurring fires here are exceedingly rare, occurring once every 500 years or more, according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). Instead, in the world’s largest rainforest, the burning is started mainly by illegal farmers, ranchers, land grabbers and speculators clearing the land and torching trees.
Ane Alencar, IPAM’s scientific director, says the recent record numbers of fires may be explained by a combination of factors: higher deforestation rates, a La Niña cycle, and the upcoming Brazil elections.
“According to the information we have, there were no concerted efforts [to set fires] as in 2019, but we’ve been experiencing a significant increase in deforested areas in the last four years, which reflects the environmental agenda of the Bolsonaro administration, that undermined enforcement agencies and encouraged illegal practices,” Alencar told Mongabay by phone. “More deforestation means that there is an accumulation of flammable material.”
The federal government employed only 41% of the budget available last year for environmental enforcement, according to Reuters. INPE’s data directly reflect this policy. This year, 3,988 square kilometers (1,540 square miles) of forest — an area three times the size of Los Angeles — have been cleared within the Brazilian Amazon, a 17% increase over last year, when deforestation reached the highest annual total since 2006.
Alencar said this scenario, combined with the influence of La Niña, may have contributed to the increase in fires in August. According to her, this climate condition has introduced more humidity in the region since last year. Illegal farmers may have taken the opportunity offered by last week’s drier days to “clean up” the accumulated material.
“Abnormal conditions prevailing in the region since last year caused some cold fronts in the southern portion of the Amazon, which decreased both temperature and proneness to fire,” Alencar said. “We cannot confirm that the farmers took advantage of the drought last week to burn up everything and safeguard their investment, but it seems to be the case.”
The third factor she identified was the upcoming elections in early October, in which Bolsonaro is seeking a second term in office. Historically, deforestation and fires have tended to increase during election years in Brazil.
“In this period, the incumbent’s energy is directed to their campaigns, and investment is diverted from enforcement,” Alencar said. “Besides, many authorities in the rural Amazon know that investment in enforcement may be frowned upon by voters.”
In July, Bolsonaro issued a decree banning the use of fire to clear vegetation across the country until the end of October. But the decree allowed some exceptions and was met with skepticism by experts, as similar measures had been rolled out in previous years unsuccessfully.
Mercedes Bustamante, a professor of ecology at the University of Brasília, told Mongabay that it’s still too early to say how severe the 2022 fire season will be. But what happened in August is an early warning, she added.
“This is a matter of serious concern,” Bustamante said by phone. “Fire figures have been high throughout the year, and several months were worse than in the preceding years, which were themselves extremely high. In addition to that, the recent images of the smoke clouds are striking.”
According to researchers monitoring the region’s weather conditions, the weather could provide some relief over the coming months. Fabiano Morelli, from INPE, said higher rainfall is projected for the northern Amazon region, which would make it harder to use fire to clear deforested land.
“The effects of La Niña should remain for the rest of the year, with changes taking place only in the first quarter of 2023,” he told Mongabay by phone.
According to Bustamante, even if this fire season doesn’t set a new record, the current destruction rates are bringing the Amazon increasingly closer to a tipping point beyond which rainfall will decline precipitously, leading to a large-scale die-off of the region’s rainforest. A study published in March in the journal Nature Climate Change assessed satellite images of the forest taken over the past three decades and showed that more than 75% of the biome has been losing its resiliency since the early 2000s. This was especially pronounced in the southern region, where the dry season is more intense. Researchers associate this change with high deforestation rates and the climate crisis. They also warn that as the forest’s resilience weakens — as its capacity to recover from repeated stresses and return to a healthy condition diminishes — the whole biome will come under threat.
Banner image: Forest fire in Amazonas state on Aug. 18. According to INPE, more than 8,100 fire outbreaks ravaged the state in August. Image © Christian Braga/Greenpeace.
Boulton, C. A., Lenton, T. M., & Boers, N. (2022). Pronounced loss of Amazon rainforest resilience since the early 2000s. Nature Climate Change, 12(3), 271-278. doi:10.1038/s41558-022-01287-8
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.