The wildfires burning in the Amazon have the potential to release vast quantities of long-stored carbon — thereby accelerating climate change and cause permanent harm to the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems.
A fleet of public and private-sector satellites are keeping tabs on deforestation rates in the Amazon, of particular interest now that the Brazilian government of President Jair Bolsonaro pursues a pro-development policy agenda. Bolsonaro has encouraged the expansion of agriculture into indigenous forested lands.
Here are some of the satellite views to help drive home the scope and severity of the fires. Since Jan. 1, a total of 75,336 wildfires have been detected in Brazil, an 85 percent jump compared to 2018, and an increase of 6,852 fires detected compared to the drought-driven wildfire season in 2016. Right now, there is no significant drought to be blamed for the fires. Instead, humans are the most likely culprit, both accidentally and intentionally.
Here are wide-angle views of carbon monoxide and smoke from a NASA computer model and NOAA:
The Amazon, which spans 2.12 million square miles, sucks up about a quarter of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon that global forests absorb each year. However, the ability of the rainforest to pull in more carbon than it releases is diminishing, weakened by changing weather patterns, deforestation and increasing tree mortality, among other factors. The ongoing fires will further degrade its function as a carbon sink.
Paulo Moutinho, a senior researcher at the Woods Hole Research Center, says the Amazon stores a cumulative total of about a decade’s worth of carbon when using current global annual emissions rates. This amounts to about 90 billion metric tons of carbon.
“If you continue to deforest … you are releasing this huge amount of carbon to the atmosphere,” he said. According to Moutinho, the spike in deforestation via wildfires this year follows years of progress on protecting the Amazon. He noted that deforestation was reduced by 80 percent between 2004 and 2012, for example.
Here is a time-lapse showing deforestation over the span of a few years, through August 2019, northeast of Jip-Paraná, in the state of Rondonia, Brazil.
And here is a still image from the above animation, showing some of the land plots on fire in August.
Lastly, here’s a view of a wildfire clearing land near Pará, Brazil.
If the Amazon were to turn into a consistent net source of carbon emissions, it would accelerate global warming while also leading to a huge loss in species that are not found anywhere else on Earth.
A study that environmental scientist Vitor Gomes co-authored this year found that while deforestation is the main threat to Amazonian tree species, climate change may exceed it within a few decades. The research found that a combination of climate change-related impacts, such as increased dryness, along with deforestation to make way for agriculture, could cause a decline in Amazon tree species richness of nearly 60 percent.
Ironically, Moutinho points out that increased deforestation plus climate trends may lead to so much drying in the Amazon that the lands that were cleared for agriculture can no longer support such activities, due to a lack of irrigation.