The world’s largest forest, the Amazon is on fire triggering global concerns over the forest also known as the “lungs of the planet”. Brazil has declared a state of emergency in the region while catastrophic fires spread to neighbouring Bolivia.
More than 9,500 new forest fires have been spotted by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research in just the last two weeks…prompting international alarm and calling for urgent action. According to forest experts, Amazon almost never burns on its own and the increase in fires this year has been quite dramatic. The region is usually too wet to ignite, so the vast majority of fires are largely believed to be caused by humans.
- The Amazon rainforest is a moist broadleaf tropical rainforest in the Amazon biome that covers most of the Amazon basin of South America.
- The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil, with 60% of the rainforest, followed by Peru with 13%, Colombia with 10%, and with minor amounts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and France (French Guiana).
- The Amazon rainforest stretches across 5.5 million square kilometers, an area far larger than the EU.
Importance of the Amazon forests for the global community:
- The enormous Amazon River, with all its tributaries, contains 20 per cent of the world’s flowing freshwater.
- The Amazon rain forests are the lungs of our planet which produces 20% of our oxygen.
- Precipitation: Through transpiration, the Amazon rainforest is responsible for creating 50-75 percent of its own precipitation. But its impact extends well beyond the Amazon Basin, with Amazon rainfall and rivers feeding regions that generate 70 percent of South America’s GDP. Models indicate that moisture from the Amazon influences rainfall as far away as the Western United States and Central America.
- Carbon storage: The 390 billion trees across the Amazon rainforest locks up massive amounts of carbon in their leaves, branches, and trunks. A 2007 study published in Global Change Biology estimated the forest stores some 86 billion tons of carbon or more than a third of all carbon stored by tropical forests worldwide.
- Biodiversity: Though the Amazon covers only four per cent of the earth’s surface, the Amazon is home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, perhaps 30 percent of the world’s species are found there. Besides their intrinsic value as living organisms, these species have potential value to humans in the form of medicine, food, and other products.
- Local benefits: Within the Amazon Basin, tens of millions of people depend on services afforded by the forest. Rivers are the main vectors for transportation, while logging and collection of non-timber forest products are major industries in many cities, towns, and villages. The rainforest helps suppress but not completely eliminate the risk of fire, in addition to reducing air pollution. Fish in Amazon tributaries are a huge source of protein in the region. Annual floods replenish nutrients in floodplain areas used for agriculture.
What caused the fire?
While the Amazon rainforest is typically wet and humid, July and August are the onset of the dry season (the region’s driest months). Fire is often used to clear out the land for farming or ranching. For that reason, a vast majority of the fires can be attributed to humans.
According to Brazil’s space research center (INPE), the country has seen an 80% increase in fires this year, compared with the same period last year. According to INPE, more than half were in the Amazon region, spelling disaster for the local environment and ecology and 99% percent of the fires result from human actions “either on purpose or by accident”.
Environmentalists blame Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
The environmentalists are blaming Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for the forest fires. When Bolsonaro was running for president, he had promised to restore Brazil’s economy by exploring the economic potential of the Amazon rainforest. As per environmentalists, Bolsonaro has encouraged the farmers and ranchers to exploit and burn the rainforest like never before.
Effect of forest fires on biodiversity:
Amazon rainforest holds atleast 10% of the world’s biodiversity. As per latest reports more than 9000 forest fires has been ragging simultaneously.
- 50% of global water and this helps in cooling the Earth.
- Significant source of emitted carbon.
- Contribute to global warming that leads to biodiversity changes.
- At regional and local level will lead to change in biomass stocks, alter hydrological cycle.
- Subsequent effects for marine systems like coral reefs.
- Impact functioning of plant and animal species.
- Smokes from fires reduce photosynthetic activity and can be detrimental to the health of human and animals.
- Increased probability of further burning in subsequent years.
- As dead trees topple to the ground, open up forest to drying by sunlight.
- Consequences of repeated burns are detrimental as it is the key factor in the impoverishment of biodiversity in rainforest ecosystem.
Replacement of vast areas of forest with grasslands is another negative ecological impact of fires in tropical rain forest.
Impact of Amazon Fires
- Fires taking massive tool on wildlife.
- Flames, heat, smoke in habitation having devastating impacts on vertebrates, invertebrates not only killing them directly but also leading to longer term indirect effects like stress, loss of habitat, territories, shelter and food.
- Loss of key organisms in forest ecosystem such as invertebrates, pollinators and decomposers can slow forest recovery rate.
- Vulnerable species may become more threatened and face extinction.
- Experts also say the entire ecosystem of rainforest will be altered.
- Surviving in transformed ecosystem difficult for many species.
- Displacements of territorial birds and mammals.
Four approaches to fight Forest Fires.
- The first is what may be called technological, where helicopters or ground-based personnel spray fire retardant chemicals, or pump water to fight the blaze..
- The second is to contain the fire in compartments bordered by natural barriers such as streams, roads, ridges, and fire lines along hillsides or across plains. A fire line is a line through a forest which has been cleared of all vegetation. The width depends on the type of forest being protected. Once the blaze has burnt out all combustibles in the affected compartment, it fizzles out and the neighbouring compartments are saved.
- The third is to set a counter fire, so that when a fire is unapproachable for humans, a line is cleared of combustibles and manned. One waits until the wildfire is near enough to be sucking oxygen towards it, and then all the people manning the line set fire to the line simultaneously. The counter fire rushes towards the wildfire, leaving a stretch of burnt ground. As soon as the two fires meet, the blaze is extinguished.
- The fourth approach, which is the most practical and most widely used, is to have enough people with leafy green boughs to beat the fire out. This is practised in combination with fire lines and counter fires.
The devastating loss of biodiversity does not just affect Brazil. The loss of Amazonian vegetation directly reduces rain across South America and other regions of the world. The planet is losing an important carbon sink, and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere. If we can’t stop deforestation in the Amazon, and the associated fires, it raises real questions about our ability to reach the Paris Agreement to slow climate change.
The Brazilian government has set an ambitious target to stop illegal deforestation and restore 4.8 million hectares of degraded Amazonian land by 2030. If these goals are not carefully addressed now, it may not be possible to meaningfully mitigate climate change.