The Amazon rainforest is a wondrous and beautiful place, full of mighty rivers and lush green trees. But, beneath its glossy green exterior, it’s working hard to provide the world with countless benefits. Without the Amazon the entire world’s climates would be thrown off, the atmosphere would be polluted with billions of tonnes of CO2, 10% of the world’s biodiversity would be lost, and we may never find cures for many modern-day diseases. Yes, the Amazon is an extremely important asset to the planet.
Tropical forests exchange a tonne of water and energy with the surrounding atmosphere, and as such, they are thought to contribute greatly to both local and regional climates. The Amazon Rainforest is said to be responsible for as much as 75% of its own rainfall, which feeds the nearby rivers through evapotranspiration. The water from the rivers then flows directly into the ocean, maintaining extremely important ocean currents, and thus controlling the regional climate.
Recent research has found that the rainfall in the Amazon Basin not only affects South America’s climate, but it also influences rainfall in Central and Western United States.
Natural fires in the Amazon are rare, and the majority of these fires were set by farmers preparing Amazon-adjacent farmland for next year’s crops and pasture.
Much of the land that is burning was not old-growth rain forest, but land that had already been cleared of trees and set for agricultural use.
To be clear, fires in the Amazon are nothing new—so long as humans have been deforesting, they’ve been modifying the rainforest to burn. But after years of progress to slow its destruction, deforestation is now accelerating, fueling more fires. It’s a stunningly clear example of how human behavior can shift with a change in political whims, in this case the arrival of Bolsonaro. What’s different this year is that a lot of the fires have been set by people who were emboldened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, says University of Florida ecologist Emilio Bruna, who studies the Amazon. “They're illegally setting fires as a means of clearing land, and using it to intimidate indigenous activists or environmental activists.”
INPE’s figures represent a 79% increase in fires from the same period in 2018. There have been large numbers of fires in other recent years as well: According to a manager of Global Forest Watch, the number of fires in the Amazon this year is roughly comparable to 2016.
Deforestation more broadly is always a cause for concern. Last year, the world lost about 30 million acres of tree cover, including 8.9 million acres of primary rain forest, an area the size of Belgium.
These fires were not caused by climate change. They were, by and large, set by humans. However, climate change can make fires worse. Fires can burn hotter and spread more quickly under warmer and drier conditions.
When it comes to the future of climate change, widespread fires contribute a dual negative effect. Trees are valuable because they can store carbon dioxide, and that storage capacity is lost when trees burn. Burning trees also pumps more carbon into the atmosphere.
Peru is no stranger to deforestation and fire!