In August, the world reeled as images of fires ravaging the fringes of the Amazon in South America spread across the Internet. Maps of fires detected by satellites were next to emerge, showing hot spots not only on the South American continent but across the globe. French President Emmanuel Macron referenced these maps in tweets shortly after the Group of Seven summit this week, saying that “The forest is also burning in sub-Saharan Africa.” Macron said that he is considering a similar plan of action for Africa, as was just announced for the Amazon.

But not all fires on the planet are the same. There are distinct burning seasons in many parts of the world, driven by the rainy and dry periods, agricultural practices and the spread of human population.

Fires detected by satellite,

2000 to 2019

Jan.—Mar.

April—June

July—Sept.

Oct.—Dec.

Equator

Fires detected by satellite, 2000 to 2019

Jan.—March

April—June

July—Sept.

Oct.—Dec.

Equator

Fires detected by satellite, 2000 to 2019

Jan.

Feb.

March

April

May

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Equator

Fires detected by satellite, 2000 to 2019

Jan.

Feb.

March

April

May

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Equator

Fires detected by satellite, 2000 to 2019

Jan.

Feb.

March

April

May

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Equator

NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments have recorded every detected fire since 2000. When all 75 million fires are mapped and colored by month, a clear geographic and temporal pattern emerges. Bands of colors light up across the world and cluster together.

Fires by month

2000-2019

The dry season in Africa’s Sahel region, north of the equator, is in December and January.

300k

total fires

Dec.

Jan.

200k

Nov.

Feb.

100k

Oct.

March

Sep

April

Aug

May

July

June

Summer is the dry season in southern hemisphere Africa and South America, accounting for a large number of fires.

Fires by month

2000-2019

The dry season in Africa’s Sahel region, north of the equator, is in December and January.

300k

total fires

Dec.

Jan.

200k

Feb.

Nov.

100k

Oct.

March

Sep

April

Aug

May

July

June

Summer is the dry season in southern hemisphere Africa and South America, accounting for a large number of fires.

Fires by month

2000-2019

The dry season in Africa’s Sahel region, north of the equator, is in December and January.

300k

total fires

Dec.

Jan.

200k

Feb.

Nov.

100k

Oct.

March

Sep

April

Aug

May

Summer is the dry season in southern hemisphere Africa and South America, accounting for a large number of fires.

July

June

Large parts of the Southern Hemisphere — including the Amazon and Africa — burn with regularity every year. According to Lauren Williams, the senior manager for Central and West African forests at the World Resources Institute, “Fires are not uncommon in most of the Congo’s forested ecosystems." She added: “Fire is both a natural part of these ecosystems and an important land management tool in Congo that is used to clear land for agriculture, cropland management, and road clearing. Fires such as these are more common during the dry season, which lasts from roughly May to September.”

Fires detected by satellite, 2018

Jan.—Mar.

April—June

July—Sept.

Oct.—Dec.

Equator

CONGO

1,000 MILES

Fires detected by satellite, 2018

Jan.—March

April—June

July—Sept.

Oct.—Dec.

Equator

CONGO

1,000 MILES

Fires detected by satellite, 2018

Jan.

Feb.

March

April

May

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Equator

CONGO

1,000 MILES

Niels Andela, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, studies fire trends across the globe. “Africa is responsible for about 70 percent of the global burned area," he said. “Something is always burning somewhere." Andela, along with colleagues, runs the Global Fire Emissions Database — a database that chronicles all the fires captured by NASA satellites.


This Aug. 26, satellite image shows gray smoke and haze emanating above the white clouds covering central Africa. (NASA/AP)

But fires in South America are different. In Africa, fires are used to clear grasslands and savanna. The ecosystem there has developed to embrace and depend on fires. Many of the fires on the South American continent are on the edge of the Amazon rainforest and are burning virgin forest.

Fires detected by satellite, 2018

Jan.—Mar.

April—June

July—Sept.

Oct.—Dec.

Equator

AMAZON BASIN

1,000 MILES

Fires detected by satellite, 2018

Jan.—March

April—June

July—Sept.

Oct.—Dec.

Equator

AMAZON BASIN

1,000 MILES

Fires detected by satellite, 2018

Jan.

Feb.

March

April

May

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Equator

AMAZON BASIN

1,000 MILES

This year has been slightly worse than previous years in the Amazon, with more than 100,000 fires detected through Aug. 22.

Fires detected by satellite

in the Legal Amazon Region

300 thousand fires detected

200

100

2012-18

2019

0

J

F

M

A

M

J

J

A

S

O

N

D

Source: Fires detected by NASA MODIS via

Global Fire Emissions Database

Fires detected by satellite

in the Legal Amazon Region

300 thousand fires detected

200

100

2012-18

2019

0

J

F

M

A

M

J

J

A

S

O

N

D

Source: Fires detected by NASA MODIS via

Global Fire Emissions Database

Fires detected by satellite in the Legal Amazon Region

300 thousand fires detected

200

100

2012-18

2019

0

Jan.

Feb.

March

April

May

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Source: Fires detected by NASA MODIS via Global Fire Emissions Database

The number of fires in the Amazon varies from year to year, and based on the number of fires detected so far, 2019 is slightly outpacing the trend over recent years. While it is not clear whether this trend will continue to increase beyond normal levels, the fire season in the Amazon (south of the equator) has just begun and bears monitoring.

About this story

Fire data is from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). Fire chart compiled from Global Fire Emissions Database.

Lauren Tierney and Adrian Blanco contributed to this report.

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