By Robert Walker
We have had wild fires for many years now in the Amazon, even in the tropical rainforest – mainly started by humans for forest clearing and ranching. It is not enough to impact significantly on the Paris agreement pledges yet, though it is important in the long term if this continues for decades. This image is being shared even in usually reputable media with captions such as National Geographic’s “The Amazon is burning at record rates – and deforestation is to blame”. Similarly, the BBC is reporting it as a “record”.
But is it? You would not guess from these headlines that NASA’s description for the original photo says that it is burning at less than average rates. Bit of a big difference there. They mention this in the details of the stories but a fair bit down the page.
The image shows smoke from fires in the Amazon region on 13th August 2019. These are not necessarily all forest fires. Some of these will be fires in pasture to stimulate new growth for the cattle.
NASA’s caption: “As of August 16, 2019, satellite observations indicated that total fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average in comparison to the past 15 years. Though activity has been above average in Amazonas and to a lesser extent in Rondônia, it has been below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database”
So, go to the Global Fire Emissions Database. and this is what you see in the “Totals” section :
The green line for 2019 there is a bit hard to make out, so here is a zoom in, as you can see it is way below the top line which is for 2005, with only a few data points, and is also below the 2003 line.
As the NASA page says, the Amazonas region has seen more fires than the average and indeed, it was briefly a record:
And as the NASA page says, although above average also for Rondônia, it has been below average in Mato Grosso and Pará.
The 42 areas of Amazonas officially protected are okay, no deforestation.
The state government is also raising farmers’ awareness and increasing their presence in at-risk areas in an attempt to curb illegal agricultural fires and discourage deforestation.
The ranchers use fire for forest clearing, “slash and burn agriculture” as it is called. That is because it is much easier to convert forest into grassland by burning it than to do it by felling the trees. Once it is cut, the way they manage the pastures is to reburn them every few years to clear out the brush and to get the grass to resprout.
So not all the fires you see are virgin forest. Many are controlled grassland fires, to get the grass to resprout. We do something similar in the UK where they do controlled burning of heather (muir burn) for grouse, sheep and deer.
Then, some were started as grassland fires, but get out of contro and burn the nearby forest at the forest edges l (the same sometimes happens for our heather fires in the UK).
You can read about how they manage the pastures in Brazil through burning here:
Also we do not risk losing the Amazon as a whole. That is something they used to think a few years back, but the research has moved on. A large part of the Amazon rainforest will remain through to 2100 even with high emissions – they survived the previous glacial minimum when it was warmer.
We do not need them for oxygen. This is just an urban myth. We have plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere for thousands of years even if somehow magically all photosynthesis stopped producing oxygen
- Debunked: If we cut down all the forests we will run out of oxygen to breathe – they are not the “lungs of the planet” in any literal sense
The burnt areas do not become desert, but rather, regrow quickly as lower mass drier forests which given enough time over many decades and perhaps centuries would restore to tropical rainforest again – but in a warmer world some of them will turn to savannah with scattered trees, a habitat known as the Cerrada.
This is another article I’m writing to support people we help in the Facebook Doomsday Debunked group, that find us because they get scared, sometimes to the point of feeling suicidal about it, by such stories.
Do share this with your friends if you find it useful, as they may be panicking too.
SO WHAT HAPPENED – DO WE BELIEVE NASA OR INPE
Here INPE is the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research. They run a program called DETER that does rapid assesements of wildfires by satellite. It needs to be validated using PRODES which is yearly and far more accurate. The DETER website says the data should not be relied on.
Unicef reports that the data from satellite images show that Brazil lost 2,254 square kilometers (870 square miles) of forest in July, between three and five times the amount lost in the same month for each of the previous four years.
Bolsorano questions those figures
During a recent public appearance, Bolsonaro joked that if the “absurd” deforestation numbers were true, “then I am Captain Chainsaw!”
So what happened? Outside of Brazil everyone is siding with the INPE. But – it turns out on this particular matter, it may be Bolsorano who is right!
DETER can’t see through cloud. The media reports should never have been leaked to the public without explaining that the science is not validated.
It can count the same area multiple times. When it detects deforestation it has no way of knowing when it happeend and may record it for one month when it actually happened years before but the area was covered by cloud and couldn’t be spotted earlier.
More details here (in spanish).
40% OF AMAZON IS OUTSIDE BRAZIL
Many people probably don’t realize that 40% of the Amazonian rainforest is outside of Brazil.. Other parts of the forest are much better protected.
An exmple of a country that has Amazonian rainforest with high protection standards is Suriname, smallest country in South America, and one of the few CARBON NEGATIVE countries absorbing 8.8 million tons of CO2 every year. That’s 16 tons of CO2 per year per person.
The world average is to emit 5 tons per person per year. So it offsets the CO2 for 1.7 million additional people every year.
WILDFIRES PART OF NATURE WORLDWIDE
Nearly all forests have wildfires, naturally, but they are much rarer in tropical rainforests because they are wet year round. The natural fires mainly happen where the forests meet drier pastureland / savannah and in the Amazon region they are driest in July onwards to mid September.
This shows fires from space – if you could take such a video ten million years ago it would still show many fires, though the fires would be started naturally rather than manmade.
This is a short summary from NASA about why we get forest fires in various parts of the world.
For Brazil, most of the fires we get at present are manmade and are started deliberately as the easiest way to remove tropical rainforest in order to convert it to grassland for cattle ranching.
You can see some of the ranching from space in this video at the end.
Sometimes they spread further than intended. This has gone on for many years now and we always have the stories at this time of year about the fires in the Amazon seen from space.
Some of them also spread from the already cleared grassland into nearby forest – unintentionally. The forest is becoming more vulnerable because of warmer conditions and drought.
However – this is not going to mean the end of the Amazon rainforest. Parts of it will remain through everything, through to 2100.
Alarming though it may seem the forest does regrow, though to a lower biomass forest to start with and full recovery takes many decades. The Amazon as a whole is vast. Even through to 2100 even at high levels of warming the Western Amazon will be largely intact.
In a warming world at higher levels of warming, many of the drier areas eventually would turn to savannah mixed with trees. But not all of it, and likely to be patchy.
RANCHING COULD BE MUCH MORE PRODUCTIVE WITH JUST THE EXISTING LAND
The sad thing is that no forest would need to be burnt for deforestation, if Brazil’s cattle ranching was just a bit more efficient.
In the next decade, beef is forecast to grow by 24%, soy by 39% and bioethanol by 27%.
Brazilian beef productivity is currently only a third of its sustainable potential. So much of the land is taken up for ranching that in theory Brazil could meet its entire demand for Beef, crops and timber through to 2040 by increasing its beef productivity from a third to a half of its sustainable potential.
The right side of this photo shows the effect of replanting the grassland to increase productivity.
In this pilot study then farms were able to increase productivity by 30–490%
This required an initial investment of US$410–2180/hectare with a payback time of 2.5 to 8.5 years.
EFFECTS OF BOLSORANO’S POLICIES
Bolsorano is only in office for four years initially, maximum of two terms at a time, or 8 years (after which he can run again but only after a gap for someone else in office).
Brazilians elected him for his anti-corruption campaign not for his views on the rainforest. Most of the Brazilians actually care about the environment but though most can read and write, few have attained the level of literacy you reach when you leave high school.
Under international pressure he has stayed within the Paris Agreement, and his is a minority government, so he can’t actually reverse the legislation to protect forests, but he is reducing support for enforcing it.
The increased emissions only add a few percent to the CO2 emissions for the year. If all countries had the same emissions as Brazil as it is now, we would not be able to stay within 2°C but so long as others step up their pledges, then it’s mainly important for Brazil to step up its pledges at a later stage and as far as climate change is concerned it’s not an immediate disaster.
It does matter for the forest dwellers whose forests are being destroyed right now. But the Amazon forest as a whole is vast and most will not be affected by 8 years of increased deforestation.
HOW THE FOREST CHANGES WITH GLOBAL WARMING
Large areas of Brazil are already Cerrado which has its own rich wildlife.
Also the Amazonian rainforest will not convert to savanna all at once. It is biodiverse and varied and different patches have different species in them. In a warming world at 3°C, some will be more resilient than others and will remain, with a change in the balance of species, while others turn to drier savanna like the Cerrado.
If it was a monoculture the climate would just need to go over some threshold in temperature, or humidity, and the whole thing would go. Because of the mix of species then it is more of a gradual thing. And then because of the patchiness, it would change to grassland only in patches which protects it further.
SURVIVAL OF LARGE AREAS OF WESTERN AMAZON EVEN AT HIGH LEVELS OF WARMING THROUGH TO 2100
Parts of the Amazon rainforest seem to be much more resilient, especially the western regions, and this is how it survived previous warm periods. It’s now thought most of it would survive this time too.
The upper map here shows the extent of the tropical rainforest and of the lower tree cover areas at the end of the last glacial minimum. This is how the tropical rainforest survives through the warmer periods in the past. The lower figure shows the extent we can expect by 2100.
See this paper in Nature for some of the recent research from 2018:
I am not sure what temperature change the lower one corresponds to. If anyone here is expert and able to say please do. It might be “business as usual?”.
So in short, the composition of parts of it would change. Some might change to a more open drier grassland. However most of it would remain and there would be a lot of tropical rainforest still at 3 °C or even at the higher temperatures of “business as usual”.
Earlier studies didn’t take account of the effect of the mix of species some of which are more resistant to heat changes than others. See this paper in Nature from 2016
As the climate warms we do expect more wildfires in the Amazon. But there are fires there every year. They are started deliberately sometimes, for deforestation to open new areas for farming. They also start accidentally due to the trees being drier as a result of draining, they encroach on the forest from nearby open areas. This is an example from 2010:
The line of white trees here are the result of a surface fire encroaching on the Amazon rainforest from an open area during the September 2010 drought.
EFFECTS OF WILDFIRES IN THE AMAZON
The wildfires in the amazon are mainly started deliberately by humans, as the easiest way to remove tropical rainforest to turn it to grassland for cattle ranching. Sometimes they get out of control and encroach into larger areas of the rainforest. Now however, many fires are also starting in pastureland and then spreading to the forest.
Climate change will lead to the Amazon region getting drier, and wildfires can accelerate that process. First, the forests do recover from wildfire, but full recovery takes a long time.
The initial growth is fast but 31 years later they still recover to only about three quarters of the original biomass. They continue to recover however and long term full recovery is possible. Some trees are centuries to millennia old in mature forests so it’s a long time to replace those.
There are other effects too. For instance burnt forests have a more open canopy, let in more sunlight, and so dry out more. Combine that with more drought conditions and that limits the regrowth. The fires also destroy some of the seedbank needed to reconstitute the rainforest.
The other way around, then if unintended wildfires can be stopped, this can help to build in more resilience to climate change.
Increases of fires, e.g. from El Nino’s climate change, logging or road construction can trigger these positive feedbacks leading to a fire dominated lower mass forest.
Some things one could do is to use intensification of cattle ranching in Brazil, and improved soil management in the croplands, so they get the same increases of yields without needing to use fires and clear new forests.
For more on this:
CRITICAL POINT FOR FOREST FRAGMENTATION
This was shared in 2018 with headlines such as
However it is not accurate to call this a “tipping point” as if the forest would suddenly all disappear and be gone.
What they did is to discover an intriguing fractal distribution of forest fragments. A few large areas, then more medium sized fragments, more smaller ones and so on. This pattern is the same in all forests worldwide despite the many different reasons for felling them and methods of doing it.
At exactly 59% forest cover you get patches of forest of all sizes. Above it you get a few large patches, many small patches and not much in between. Below it you get lots of small patches and the largest patches are gone. This is not a die back. It is just the normal patterns of random deforestation breaking it up so that there are no more continuous huge forests. This happened in Europe thousands of years ago. Very few really large forests and nothing remotely the size of the Amazon here. But we still have many forests of intermediate size.
They looked into the causes of it and found that if deforestation exceeds reaforestation it becomes more fragmented. If the other way around it becomes less fragmented. So, you can make a forest less fragmented by slowing down the process of deaforestation or increasing reafforestation or both.
They analysed it using percolation theory and found that forest fragmentation is close to the percolation critical point of 59% of forest cover. At a forest cover of 59% then the large scale behaviour has a simple mathematical description. Above or below that it is more complex.
Here you see how it works with their model of the process. To start with there are a few large fragments, many small ones, and none of intermediate size.
At the critical point there are fragments of all sizes following a simple mathematical relationship where the smaller fragments are more common. Below that the largest fragments are gone completely, all broken up into smaller fragments.
To take an example, not from their paper, the UK is clearly in phase 3, much less than 59% is forest. We lost our largest forests thousands of years ago, back when the ancient Britains first introduced agriculture, and are left with much smaller ones. They are still large, just not as vast as the origial forests that use to cover our land almost entirely after the last ice age.
Europe, North American and parts of Asia have had more reafforestation than deforestation in the last few centuries, but forest loss exceeds forest gain in most tropical countries.
This is how they see it unfolding along a timeline. Tropical America could reach a maximum of two billion fragments when about three quarters of the forest cover is gone.
This process is under our control. At any time we can change policies to favour reafforestation and then the forests will start to heal and form larger areas again. We can also use such methods as forest corridors to connect together the fragments if it gets to the point where there are no really large areas any more.
Our models predict that additional forest loss will result in a large increase in the total number of forest fragments—at maximum by a factor of 33 over 50 years—as well as a decrease in their size, and that these consequences could be partly mitigated by reforestation and forest protection.
Note – this is a very large scale overview of the situation at a continent level.
For instance, if Brazil was to reach this point where the forest starts to break up into smaller fragments with none of the largest areas left – this would have no effect on Suriname.
FERTILIZATION EFFECTS OF WILDFIRES
Actually forest fires have a fertilizing effect on the oceans and on other forests. The forest fires in Africa help the Amazon rainforest to flourish. They used to think it was the Sahara dust but it now seems to be the forest fires in Africa.
WORST CASE FUTURES GENERALLY
For other things that will happen as we warm up and the worst case future if we are not able to reduce the temperature below 3 C by 2100 see
NOT LIKELY TO REACH 3°C
At least as things are going now, it is not likely to go as far as that. We have already knocked a degree off the projection for 2100 from 2015. Though there are the notable exceptions of Brazil, the US, and Canada (and perhaps Australia), more countries than not are keeping to their pledges and expected to increase on them.
It is very promising that we increase on our pledges in 2020, several countries like the UK already have, California is committed to carbon zero by 2045, and China has said it will increase its pledges and map out a way to carbon zero later in this century. Not only that, also it will support the green climate fund, which makes a big difference. It is hugely underfunded, only a fraction of the $100 billion a year that is needed and many of the less developed countries like India will be able to do much more ambitious pledges with funding to support them.
Many forget that the Paris agreement pledges were never expected to lead to a commitment to 1.5 or 2 C in one go. The idea is to increase the pledges. Also CO2 emissions, even yearly emissions are expected to be level or increase through to the early 2020s on all scenarios. The aim is to reach 1.5 C by increasing pledges in 2020 based on the experiences of what worked in the last 5 years (along with improvements in technology and new industries). Then based on experiences from 2020 to 2025, to increase pledges again in 2025 and so on.
For some recent positive news:
- Ethiopians collaborate to plant 353 million trees in twelve hours – world record – aim is to plant 40 trees each this summer for a total of 4 billion trees – can we follow their example in the UK and elsewhere?
- China to Increase 2015 Climate Pledges in 2020, Support Green Climate fund- Maintain Biodiversity & May Peak Emissions Early 2020s
- Ursula von der Leyen’s proposed green new deal will make Western Europe the first 1.5°C compatible continent if passed
And all the Democrats running as candidates for 2020 have a strong green agenda. Even if Trump is re-elected, he may well be influenced eventually by public pressure especially if the green vote clearly has impacted on the Republican poll results in crucial states (example, if they lost Florida due to a green vote). The US needs to come on board by the next pledge in 2025 or at least, by 2030 for best chance of success, but the US emissions are level or falling as the long term trend anyway (with an up tick last year because of more winter heating) so they are not a priority right now in the world as a whole.
WHY DID BRAZIL ELECT BOLSORANO?
Bolsorano’s government is only in power for four years and it depends a lot on what happens after that. He is a minority government and he can’t remove the legislation to protect the forests, just remove funding and support for those who do protect it. He is also under a lot of international pressure.
More Brazilians care about the environment than not, and he wasn’t elected particularly for his environmental views. This author from Brazil says that the public can put pressure on him and also says there is an issue of environmental illiteracy in Brazil
He was elected to fight corruption and also as a result of viral campaigns on social media, not because of his views on the rainforest.
Variou sspeculations here about why he was elected, I can’t really comment on them.
[CORRECTION – HAD A SECTION HERE ABOUT HIM BEING ELECTED DUE TO LOW LEVELS OF LITERACY BUT THAT IS NOT TRUE, THOSE IN HIGHER EDUCATION VOTED MOST FOR HIM AND THOSE WITH LOWEST LEVELS, LEAST – SEE LINKED PAGE FOR DETAILS]
- New president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro wants to remove protections from the tropical rainforest – how much can he do?
According to climate tracker if all countries followed Brazil’s approach, warming would reach over 2°C and up to 3°C. But of course most countries are not following his approach.
“If deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon were to return to the 2004 peak, a likely scenario under Bolsonaro’s rule, it could boost annual emissions to almost 3 billion metric tons over his term, at the top end of that range. That’s nearly half the United States’ total annual greenhouse-gas emissions” Brazil’s presidential election could mean billions of tons of additional greenhouse gases
That would make it so Brazil contributes up to 7% of total CO2 emissions by the table here
Another study looked at the absolute worse case where he left the Paris agreement, as he originally planned to do.
“A study by scientists at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research found that additional emissions could be even higher. They estimated that Amazon deforestation rates could triple, reaching 25,600 square kilometers a year, if Brazil exited the Paris climate deal, authorized mining on indigenous lands, and enacted other policies Bolsonaro has floated.” Brazil’s presidential election could mean billions of tons of additional greenhouse gases
would take it to 21% of total world CO2 emissions approx.
– but that’s not happening, he hasn’t exited the Paris agreement and as a minority government it’s not going to be easy for him to enact controversial policies. Can turn a blind eye, can’t change the regulation.
It’s major especially when there’s a priority to cut back rapidly to stay within 1.5 C.
However Brazil is very dependent on exports and other countries can put pressure on it to adopt more green policies. That is probably one of the main factors that has kept them within the Paris agreement.
And if we get increasing awareness of green issues in the Brazilian population – it is possible they can influence him if they find a voice and if there is more awareness of such issues there.
See also my