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Satellite data released on August 1 by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) showed more than 6,800 fires across the Amazon region in July, an increase of 28% compared to last year. And it’s still early – August is generally considered to be the start of the fire season, which typically falls in dry months. More than 10,000 fires were recorded in the first 10 days of this month, up 17% from the same period last year, according to INPE.

Last year of deforestation on the world’s largest rainforest – 60% of which is in Brazil – was an estimated 10,000 square kilometers (3,800 square kilometers), roughly the size of Lebanon. That is the highest level since 2008, according to INPE. With increased deforestation comes a greater risk of burns, as many of those who destroyed the rainforest last year spread land that had been removed for illegal mining, agriculture and animal husbandry.

Degradation under the hood

President Jair Bolsonaro – who has repeatedly called for removing more of the Amazon region for economic development – disputed the recent fire data in a speech to other South American leaders on August 11.

“Tropical rainforest catches no fire. That this story that the Amazon is burning is a lie, and we must fight it with real numbers,” he told the meeting of the Leticia Pact, a group launched last year to clear the rainforest protect.

Bolsonaro challenged the leaders to fly across the rainforest from Boa Vista to Manaus, a distance of about 750 kilometers (460 miles), and see for themselves. “They will not find a place of fire, nor a quarter of an acre of forest,” he said.

Although these forests can still appear unspoiled when viewed from above, the green landscape seen from an airplane or satellite can be misleading. A typical wildfire burning through the understory – the vegetation grows under the main canopy of the forest – of a virgin rainforest can wipe out small shrubs, plants and between 40 to 50% of all trees.

“Much of the Amazon forest is consistently degraded, and it is invisible to the naked eye,” said Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a Brazilian non-governmental organization. “In fact, the quality of these forests has been degraded because of these forest fires.”

As many of the undergrowth and smaller trees are eliminated, it makes it difficult to maintain the humid understory microclimate, which helps protect rainforests from fires. These microclimates have already suffered, with the average temperature in the Amazon basin rising by at least 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1980, according to USAID climate data. The dry season has become longer and severe droughts are now more frequent, with three reported since 2005.

The damage also does not end with the first blow. Larger trees, which can be damaged in a fire but survive due to the humid environment, could finally succumb to the trauma years later. “In the beginning it is the small trees that die because they are the most vulnerable to heat stress, but over time it is actually the larger trees that die and fall, taking with them many other trees. , “said Jos Barlow, a British professor of conservation science who has been working in Brazil since 1998.

“This opens up extra holes in the hood, allowing sunlight to reach the understory and further dry it out.”

Restoring mycorrhizal networks – underground systems of soil fungi that help trees to exchange nutrients and water – to a firework is still unclear and a subject of investigation, although it is known that the top layer of very fine roots also suffers in ‘ the initial blow. Some studies, including a 2017 article in Fire Ecology, have suggested that the “resistance of soil fungi is likely to contribute to the overall rapid ecosystem recovery after fire.” For forest ecosystems, however, rapid can still mean several decades, according to a 2019 report in the journal Science Advances – at the earliest.

Wildfires have been increasing in recent years

Another danger, Barlow said, is that more and more fires are raining down over areas already damaged by fire, particularly along the edges of the rainforest near new roads, clear fields and meadows, both legal and illegal. This could change the landscape permanently.

“If you have recurrent fires from two or three fires, then move to an alternative ecosystem where you have almost no size [trees] at least dominated by shrubs and bamboo and grass, “Barlow said.

Paulo Massoca, a Brazilian researcher and doctoral candidate at Indiana University Bloomington studied rainforest rainforest, said that recurrent fires act as a kind of “filter”, and gradually eliminate plants that are not adapted to frequent fires and select the most resistant species, leaving “a fraction of the total pool of plants in the region.”

“After repeated burnings, soils are depleted, plants grow more slowly, and vines / lianas and other non-woody plants, in addition to trees, settle in the area,” he told DW, adding that this broad change in the ecosystem is slowing and hindering the capacity of secondary forests to be damaged by repeated fires to regenerate and collect carbon. “

It does not help that the Amazon soil, albeit poor, loses even more valuable nutrients after a fire. In a rainforest, the nutrients supplied by dead organic matter are reabsorbed by living plant life, leaving little on the ground.

“Burns kill both the plants that sustain the soil and eliminate the soil that supports the plants,” Massoca said. “Fires immediately leave the nutrients and carbon trapped in the soil, which are washed away or released into the atmosphere after the first rain.”

Those suspicious soot particles in the very smoke clouds then float over healthy forests, which could potentially affect cloud formation and rainfall patterns, according to Divino Vicente Silverio, a biologist at the Amazon Rural Federal University in Belem, northern Brazil.

In an August 2019 interview with Nature magazine, he said that this atmospheric aerosol load could lead to changes in how forests cycle water, create dry conditions and disrupt weather patterns in the Amazon and beyond.

‘There are no natural fires in the Amazon’

Almost all fires in Amazon can be linked to human activity. Trees that have been removed to make way for economic development are cut down and left to dry and then put forward. Additional fires have been set up to eliminate weeds from existing pastures and clear old agricultural areas. And, as happened in 2019, these fires could spread to surrounding forests.

“There are no natural fires in the Amazon,” said Alencar of IPAM. “Even if it’s very, very dry, we need to have someone who uses the game.”

For criticizing the government’s response to the 2019 fires, President Bolsonaro has banned agricultural burning in the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands until November, the end of the dry season, and deployed troops to prevent illegal deforestation. .

In his speech at the meeting of the Leticia Pact last week, he said that the efforts of the government had been effective, pointing out that forest clearings had fallen by more than 25% in July compared to July 2019, the first decline in 15 months.

“We are making huge, enormous efforts to fight fires and deforestation, but even so, we are being criticized,” he said.

However, experts have accused Bolsonaro of cherry-picking the data. INPE says deforestation increased by 25% in the first half of the year, and that at least 3,000 square miles (1,200 square miles) were cut by June. Alencar said if the current rate continues, 2020 would be Brazil’s worst year for deforestation in more than a decade.

In states with historically high deforestation rates – Mato Grosso, Para and Rondonia – the number of fires discovered so far in 2020 is already higher than in the same period in 2019. Alencar said the increase so early in the season shows that the reaction of the government has been ineffective – and she finds it too late.

“For this fire season, it looks like we lost the battle against deforestation,” she told DW. “We had two days, July 30 and August 1, with more than 1,000 hot pixels, which is a measure of the fire activity in the region. And those were very high for that period.”

Added are NASA observations showing a potentially active Atlantic hurricane season, such as 2005 and 2010, which contributed to major droughts in the southwestern Amazon when storms saw moisture from the forest.

“They predict that this will probably happen the same pattern this year, which will be catastrophic if it is true,” Alencar said.

Re-posted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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