The Brazilian Amazon is experiencing its worst rash of fires in nearly 10 years, data from space research agency INPE shows.
Last month, INPE satellites recorded 32,017 hotspots in the world’s largest rainforest, a 61 percent increase compared with the same month in 2019.
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In August 2019, surging fires in the Amazon captured global headlines and prompted criticism from world leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the rainforest.
During the first US presidential debate on Tuesday, Democratic candidate Joe Biden called for a world effort to offer $20bn to end Amazon deforestation and threatened Brazil with unspecified “economic consequences” if it did not “stop tearing down the forest”.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called Biden’s comment a “cowardly threat” to Brazil’s sovereignty and a “clear sign of contempt”.
The data from INPE showed that in 2019, fires spiked in August and declined considerably the month after, but this year’s peak has been more sustained. Both August and September of 2020 have matched or surpassed last year’s single-month high, and fires have increased 13 percent in the first nine months of the year compared with 2019.
“We have had two months with a lot of fire. It’s already worse than last year,” Ane Alencar, science director for Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), told Reuters news agency.
“It could get worse if the drought continues. We are at the mercy of the rain,” Alencar added.
The Amazon is experiencing a more severe dry season than last year, which scientists attribute in part to warming in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean pulling moisture away from South America.
The entire Amazon, which spans nine countries, currently has 28,892 active fires, according to a fire monitoring tool funded in part by NASA, the US space agency.
The fires in September are not only burning recently deforested areas and farmland, where ranchers set them to clear land, but are also increasingly burning virgin forest, a worrying trend that suggests the rainforest is becoming drier and more prone to fire.
Roughly 62 percent of major Amazon fires were in forests in September, compared with only 15 percent in August, according to an analysis of satellite images by US-based non-profit Amazon Conservation.
The warming of the North Atlantic is also helping drive drought in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which has suffered more fires this year than ever recorded, according to INPE data.
An analysis by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro found that 23 percent of the wetlands, which are home to the densest population of jaguars in the world, has burned.
“Brazil is on fire,” Cristiane Mazzetti, a forest campaigner for advocacy group Greenpeace Brasil, said in a statement.
“From the Amazon to the Pantanal, the environmental heritage of all Brazilians is turning to ashes. The seriousness of the situation is, above all, a reflection of the Bolsonaro government’s anti-environmental policy,” Mazzetti added.
The far-right Brazilian leader has insisted on economic development of the region, drawing condemnation from environmentalists, climate scientists and foreign leaders who say the forest is an important carbon sink and must remain standing to achieve international climate change goals.