Wildfire season is back in the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon. Last month, the Brazilian part of the forest saw the highest number of fires in 15 years.
The good news is that scientists can predict where these fires are likely to break out so fire crews can respond quickly. Today I’m going to talk to you about how these predictions work and about a biologist’s mission to protect the Amazon and other important ecosystems.
This scientist, Liana Anderson, has been studying forest fires for more than a decade. She works at Brazil’s disaster warning center, Cemaden, where she leads a group of 17 researchers working to predict fires in South America.
Work has a double benefit: when you avoid a big fire, you don’t just save people and property. You save a crucial tool in the fight against climate change. That’s because trees absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide and lock it into their trunks, roots, and branches. When they burn, this carbon is released into the atmosphere.
To avoid fires, Anderson and his team – which includes scientists from Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia – start with data on recently deforested areas. It is a very effective indicator of forest fire activity.
The reason is simple. After trees have been cut down in a section of forest, often by ranchers who want pasture for cattle, fire is used to clear the felled wood. And these fires can get out of control.
“About half of the area deforested in any given year burns that same year,” Anderson said. “The others are ticking time bombs that will burn in a year or two.”
With that in mind, she and her team consider three other variables: above-average temperatures, below-average rainfall, and time of year. The longer the fire season progresses, the drier the forest and the higher the likelihood that a spark will turn into a wildfire.
Predictions are effective, but not perfect. Even when conditions aren’t conducive to fire, Anderson noted, large areas can still burn. In 2019, for example, when the fires in the Amazon shocked the world, the forest was not particularly dry.
“If people want it, they will set fire to the forest,” she said, referring to herders, small farmers and land grabbers. Understanding the human component “is the part of our methodology that we are trying to improve.”
The team’s most recent calculations estimate that nearly 115 million acres are highly vulnerable to fires in protected areas of the Amazon rainforest over the next three months. It is a larger area than Germany.
As climate change contributes to heat waves and droughts that lead to more frequent and intense wildfires, scientists like Anderson will become increasingly important to officials seeking to stave off forest destruction.
One of those officials, Waldemir Moreira Jr., a colonel in the firefighting department of Mato Grosso do Sul, a state in west-central Brazil, said his office used data from the team to Anderson to decide in advance where to place larger teams. The state includes much of the Pantanal, the largest wetland in the world. Two years ago, forest fires burned a fifth of its area.
The data, he said, “can help me get more resources for prevention,” including directed fires that crews deliberately set to get rid of fuel that can fuel large fires.
I asked Anderson if she sometimes gets frustrated that Brazilian leaders don’t do more to protect the Amazon. Deforestation rates continue to rise and forest fires still rage. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies tasked with protecting the forest are struggling with insufficient funding and threats of violence from environmental criminals.
His response was to describe himself as “too optimistic”. It’s a quality I didn’t expect in someone whose work is both incredibly important and incredibly daunting. But it may be necessary.
“We don’t get discouraged,” she said, describing how her team cheers when an official asks for her data. “There is no time to sit and cry.”
The largest wildfire so far this year in California has slowed down after approaching Yosemite National Park.
The United States Forest Service is taking emergency action to protect giant sequoias from wildfires. About a fifth of them have been destroyed in the past two years.
The essentials of The Times news
A survey of racism in Texas: The Justice Department is investigating whether Houston’s failure to stop illegal dumping in black and Latino neighborhoods amounts to a civil rights violation.
Hotter and longer heat waves in China: More than 900 million Chinese live under some sort of heat warning. Across the country, 71 weather stations reported record high temperatures.
A brutal monsoon season: Heavy rains have killed at least 282 people in Pakistan over the past five weeks. The country is one of the most vulnerable to climate change.
Promote EV technology: The US Department of Energy is lending two companies $2.5 billion to build battery factories. This loan is the first of its kind in more than a decade.
Protect the elderly: During heat waves, older people should avoid going out, drink plenty of water and wear loose clothing. Here are some more tips.
From the Reviews section
Climate change is non-negotiable: The threat posed by climate change requires far more commitment from elected leaders in the United States, the Times editorial board wrote.
Too many people can’t swim in New York: Summers are getting hotter, but many people of color can’t swim to cool off in city pools, Mara Gay said.
Before You Go: How Countries Can Save Energy
European Union officials, who are trying to avert an energy crisis as Russia threatens the bloc’s gas supplies, reached an agreement on Tuesday to drastically reduce energy consumption. Now, it is up to each country to respect these commitments. Here are four things any government, not just those in Europe, could do.
Thanks for reading. We will be back on Friday.
Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
Contact us at [email protected] We read every message and respond to a lot!