The Amazon Is Burning: What Can We Do?

Fires in the Amazon are directly related to deforestation. Editorial credit: Jair Ferreira Belafacce /
Fires in the Amazon are directly related to deforestation. Editorial credit: Jair Ferreira Belafacce /

The "lungs of the earth" are burning like never before. The vast Amazon rainforest is suffering from notorious fires that have received less attention than Notre Dame’s burning roof. It is time to recognize and address the threat to this rainforest before the entire world suffers from the consequences. So, how much do you know about the 2019 fires in the Amazon rainforest? Here are answers to some common questions about this environmental disaster.

Where Are The Fires?

Fires are raging across several Brazilian states located in the Amazon rainforest region. Roraima, Amazonas, Rondonia, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Acre are the worst-affected states. The smoke rising from these fires has drifted as far as the Atlantic coast thousands of kilometers away. The fires are so intense that Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, experienced darkness during daytime due to smoke brought to the city by strong winds from Amazonas and Rondonia across a distance of over 2,700 km.

How Did The Fires In Amazon Start?

So, how is it possible that a “rainforest,” one of the world's wettest ecosystems, catches fire?

Scientists mention that unlike other ecosystems where dry spells often trigger fires, those in the Amazon are not natural. For example, most of the blazes in California started accidentally and then intensified due to climate change. Lightning strikes or power line sparks also ignite wildfires. However, the case is completely different in the Amazon. Although drought can lead to rainforest fires, researchers have shown that there is nothing abnormal about the rainfall patterns in the Amazon this year. The fires here are ignited. They largely affect land cleared for farming and ranching and then spread into primitive forest. According to scientists, deforestation is the primary cause of these fires.

Environmentalists also blame the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro, the current Brazilian president. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has questioned the accuracy of the data showing the alarming number of fires and even baselessly blamed NGOs for starting fires.

Does The Amazon Burn Every Year?

Yes, but the fires in 2019 are at a record high. Over 74,000 fires have been detected in the Amazon region between January and August this year, the highest since record-keeping began in 2013. In 2018, there were slightly over 40,000 fires in the region. This year there has been an 83% surge compared to the same period last year.

How Long Has The Amazon Been On Fire?

Due to a large number of fires, both big and small, across the massive area of the Amazon rainforest, it is not easy to predict the exact beginning of the first fire. Since January, over 74,000 fires have occurred in the region. The number is expected to soar with September being the driest month of the year in the Amazon basin.

How Much Of The Amazon Has Burned?

Although it is clear that the fires in the Amazon are at an all-time high, there is very little information about how much of the forest has been lost. More detailed satellite information is needed to collect the necessary data. The full devastation of these fires will only be known after they have stopped. According to The New York Times, over 1,330 square miles of the Amazon rainforest has been lost since January.

The earth observation program of the European Union has suggested another way to measure the destructive effect of these fires. It can be done by measuring the amount of carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere. This year, an equivalent of 228 megatonnes has been released (as per Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service), the highest since 2010.

Can The Amazon Recover From Such Fires?

The Amazon rainforest takes around 20 to 40 years to recover if it is allowed to regenerate. However, fires make the surviving trees vulnerable to future fires and drought. Repeated fires in an area will lead to degradation of the forest in that area. After multiple fires, irrecoverable damage will occur.

How Long Until The Amazon Rainforest Is Gone?

For most of human history, the Amazon has been cleared primarily by subsistence farmers for crop growth for their families and local consumption. However, since the second half of the 20th century, large-scale agriculture and industrial activities began to drive the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. By the 2000s over three-quarters of the rainforest loss in the region stemmed from cattle ranching activities. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 20% of the wider Amazon biome including the rainforest and its adjacent regions has been lost to animal agriculture, logging, farming, hydropower dams, and roads. If all these destructive activities are allowed to continue and with the effects of climate change intensifying, it might not be long before most of the rainforest is gone.

What Would Happen If The Amazon Rainforest Is Gone?

In the long term, clearance of the rainforest will decrease rainfall in and around the forest region. Ironically, the cattle ranchers and soy farmers who depend on this water for their livelihood are the ones responsible for the destruction of these forests. Droughts will worsen as more trees are cleared. Drinking water supplies will decrease and food availability will also suffer.

Since the rainforest acts as a massive carbon sink, the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will increase and further speed up climate change. Such change will lead to lowered rainfall in some parts of the Amazon and floods elsewhere. Extreme weather conditions will prevail and cause great loss of lives and property.

Species destruction will fasten. The changing climate and damaged habitats will adversely affect the normal life cycle of most species pushing them towards the brink of extinction. Since the flora and fauna of the Amazon hold the potential cure for many diseases that plague humans, hopes of discovering such cures would be crushed forever.

Fires would be bigger and more numerous in the region. The tourist industry would experience a downfall. Poverty would consume those dependent on the rainforest for their livelihood.I ndigenous inhabitants would be driven out of their reserves and cultural diversity would be lost.

What Can You Do To Save The Amazon?

Sitting oceans apart, you might be feeling helpless about the condition of the Amazon. However, the rest of the world is as much responsible for Amazon's poor health as are the locals and governments of the Amazon countries.

Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor, and environmentalist says you need to eliminate beef from your diet to save the Amazon. As mentioned previously, most of the deforestation in the Amazon basin is done to clear land for cattle ranching and soy farming. The latter is directly related to the cattle industry. Soybean seeds serve as high-protein feed for livestock. Farmers in the region wait until the dry season to start burning forests so that their cattle can graze. Bolsonaro's government has only encouraged the ranchers, farmers, and loggers to exploit the rainforest more than ever before.

Greenhouse gas emissions from cattle also speed up climate change. 41% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions come from growing cattle for beef production. This emission contributes to 14.5% of total global emissions.


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