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Climate Change

One of Nature’s Solutions to Climate Change is Under Fire

by Timothy J Killeen

Why is the Amazon on Fire?

I. It’s an exceptionally dry year.

This is not unusual, however, and similar fire years occurred in 1987 and 1998, and there were also one or two very smoke-filled years in the 00s (2005 and 2010). Moreover, there is ample evidence from soil samples that Amazon-wide fires have occurred at century-scale regularity.

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The aftermath of an Amazon fire that occurred previous to 2019; Getty Images

The aftermath of an Amazon fire that occurred previous to 2019;

Getty Images

The largest fire-year on record was 1926 during a massive Amazonian drought caused by the El Niño / La Niña phenomenon, which is a “dipole” system that reverses ocean currents and trade winds that impact weather across the globe. Recently, a similar dipole system was identified in the Northern Tropical Atlantic that also influences the climate of the Amazon. The two dipoles oscillate on different multi-annual cycles, but periodically they align and cause very severe droughts (1997/98) or wide-ranging floods (2012).

II. Climate change is causing these two systems to oscillate between wet (La Niña) and dry (El Niño) phases with greater frequency and intensity. 

The most extreme events, including both droughts and floods, used to occur once a century but now happen at the near decadal-scale frequency, while decadal-scale events occur once every few years. Global climate models have long predicted an increase in the severity of extreme events. Unfortunately, things will get worse before they get better, particularly in the Southern Amazon which is more strongly impacted by weather events correlated with the Tropical North Atlantic dipole.

Warm episodes of the El Niño. NOAA

Warm episodes of the El Niño.

NOAA

III. Fire is an important management tool used by farmers and ranchers across the Amazon.

Every year tens of thousands of fires are started in pastures, grasslands, and farmland to manage weeds, or to dispose of dead trees cleared as part of prevailing agriculture production systems (see below). The fire season occurs between July and September and most of the time societies tolerate these fires because they are restricted to agricultural and frontier landscapes. In drought years, however, agriculture fires “escape” into the forest and become “wildfires” that can burn hundreds of thousands of hectares of natural forest.

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In the Amazon, historically, most forest fires have been low-intensity ground fires that exact minimal damage on tree populations and the forest will recover, if left alone, particularly in ecosystems like the Chiquitano dry forest in Bolivia that has many fire-resistant trees. Nonetheless, wildfire does damage ecosystem function and change species composition; recurrent wildfire can lead to the widespread degradation and even collapse of any forest ecosystem.

Making room for pasture.

Making room for pasture.

Getty Images

IV. Logging creates the conditions for hotter and more extensive wildfires.

The most common type of logging in the Amazon is “selective” logging, which consists of harvesting commercial species and leaving the forest [largely] intact. Selective logging can be sustainable if certain practices are adopted (long harvest cycles, minimum cutting diameters, etc.), but even low-intensity logging creates an enormous quantity of fuelwood.

Consequently, a wildfire in a recently logged forest burns at a much greater intensity and kills many more trees. Almost all of the forests that surround agricultural landscapes have been logged, which makes them particularly susceptible to fire and, unfortunately, act as conduits for wildfires that expand into forests at a greater distance from the agricultural frontier.

Things will change only when the planet collectively decides to address the issue of climate change and adopts policies that create real economic incentives to conserve the forest.

Timothy J Killeen. 2019

V. Deforestation is the result of agricultural activity and land speculation.

Fires caused by land clearing are much hotter than fires used to manage pastures and cropland; worse still, because they are adjacent to the logged forest, they are much more likely to expand into natural forest. Consequently, an increase in deforestation leads to more and hotter wildfires, especially in drought years when landholders take advantage of dry conditions to clear more forest than usual.

The most important economic activity in the Southern Amazon is agriculture, which includes ranching and both large- and small-scale farming. Agriculture increases the commercial value of land, which motivates pioneers to acquire forest land (legally or otherwise) and clear it to establish new farms and ranches. In remote areas, there is often more money to be made speculating in the land than in the actual agricultural activity, which is often a break-even enterprise at small scales.

VI. The impact of policies and markets on agricultural expansion.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon peaked in 2005 and then declined by 80% by 2012.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon peaked in 2005 and then declined by 80% by 2012; since then it has been increasing slowly, but even today deforestation is far below the levels that prevailed between 1970 and 2005. The boom in deforestation was a deliberate policy of the Brazilian government to create an agricultural economy and its subsequent decline was also a deliberate policy to protect agricultural exports.

More than 80% of deforestation in Bolivia occurs in Santa Cruz and is directly caused by that department’s quest for economic growth, policies which have deep public support at the local, regional and national level. Demand for land drives demand for roads, new roads open up areas for agricultural expansion and lead eventually to new deforestation. Rural communities across the Amazon almost universally support the expansion of road networks, including within the Chiquitania region of Santa Cruz where most of the recent fires have occurred in Bolivia.

VII. Deforestation and fire are increasing once again all across the Amazon.

In Brazil, the recent spike in deforestation is the result of a change in government. 

Since 2012, deforestation in the Andean Amazon (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia) has been approximately equivalent to the Brazilian Amazon, and the annual rate of deforestation has been increasing slowly in both regions. In Brazil, the recent spike in deforestation is the result of a change in government, in Colombia, it is an unintended consequence of the peace agreement, while in Peru and Ecuador it is a continuation of a five-decade-long process driven by migrants seeking to escape poverty in the Andean highlands.

VIII. Climate scientists warn that we may be close to a “tipping point” which could lead to cataclysmic change across the Amazon.

Fires caused by land clearing are much hotter than fires used to manage pastures and cropland; worse still, because they are adjacent to the logged forest, they are much more likely to expand into natural forest. Consequently, an increase in deforestation leads to more and hotter wildfires, especially in drought years when landholders take advantage of dry conditions to clear more forest than usual.

Boys of the community of Quitunuquina, in the surroundings of Robore in eastern Bolivia, play football with surgical masks due to the forest fires in the area, on August 25, 2019.

Boys of the community of Quitunuquina, in the surroundings of Robore in eastern Bolivia, play football with surgical masks due to the forest fires in the area, on August 25, 2019;

Aizar Raldes/Getty Images

Bolivia has a long history of internal migration and agri-business development, both of which are enjoying renewed support by a government seeking to diversify the economy and consolidate support in rural communities. This dynamic has led to the highest rate of deforestation in Bolivia’s history, averaging about 275,000 ha/year since 2015.

Several global climate models predict that the synergies among deforestation, global warming, drought, and wildfire could cause the Amazon to rapidly transition from a rainforest ecosystem into a savanna ecosystem within the next decade. The basis for this hypothesis is Amazon’s role as a water factory and the massive evapotranspiration of its trees that pump billions of tons of water into the atmosphere via a process known as “deep convection.

There is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it.

Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre. 2018

Referred to as a “biotic pump,” the linkage between the forest and the atmosphere creates a pressure gradient that pulls water from the Atlantic Ocean and distributes it across the continent via a jet stream that flows from North to South at the base of the Andes. Most historical deforestation has occurred in the Eastern and Southern Amazon, which are particularly susceptible to drought due to a strong seasonal climate, may already be situated at that tipping point.

Nonetheless, skeptics contend that the “tipping point” is a hypothesis and argue that development policy should not be made on suppositions and models. However, as Carlos Nobre (Brazil’s foremost climatologist) and Tom Lovejoy (a distinguished forest ecologist) have pointed out: “there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it.”

IX. Conclusion

Resolving the deforestation/forest fire/climate change conundrum will not be easy. Evo Morales cannot do it, and neither can Jair Bolsonaro, Emmanuel Macron or Donald Trump. Things will change only when the planet collectively decides to address the issue of climate change and adopts policies that create real economic incentives to conserve the forest. Current policies are woefully inadequate. For example, Norway contributed about $US 1 billion dollars for forest conservation in Brazil over the last ten years, but the soy harvest in the state of Mato Grosso are valued at about $US 6 billion annually.

Changing production systems will require vastly greater resources to modify the behavior of individuals who use fire and deforestation as part of their agricultural production system.

Timothy J Killeen. 2019

Similarly, Bolivia exports about $US 1 billion in soy each year, all of it produced on land that was previously covered by forest. Changing production systems will require vastly greater resources to modify the behavior of individuals who use fire and deforestation as part of their agricultural production system. It will also require very difficult reforms to the legal and regulatory systems that govern land use and land tenure, not to mention changing a culture that accepts corruption as normal human behavior.

In the short term, we will have to wait for the rains to begin. The fires will go out and we will probably forget about them until the next major drought year five or six years from now. Unless, we reach a tipping point, but by then it will probably be too late to effect meaningful change.

Timothy J Killeen is an environmental scientist with broad expertise in biological inventory, ecosystem ecology, conservation biology, and climate change science.

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