The Amazon Fire

The Amazon Fire

The Amazon Fire

There have been a lot of fires in Brazil this year – about 76% more than there were during the same period last year. And just 48 hours after Brazil’s government put a ban on burning and land clearing, to help stop the fires spreading, satellite data found that 2,000 more fires started in the Amazon alone. The 2019 fires will have a big and long-lasting impact on the forest itself, and the wider world. While the Amazon fires aren’t going to deplete the Earth’s supply of oxygen, they will release large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the atmosphere. For example, when just 0.2% of the Amazon burned in 2016, it released 30m tons of CO₂ – that’s almost as much as Denmark emitted in 2018. This is bad news, because as you probably know, CO₂ is a “greenhouse gas” that contributes to global warming and climate change – and humans are already creating dangerous amounts of it through energy use, transport and industry.

Context of Amazon Fires

  • Over the last several days, the Amazon rainforest has been burning at a rate that has alarmed environmentalists and governments worldwide.
  • Mostly caused by farmers clearing land, the fires have thrown the spotlight on Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies and anti-environment stance.
  • Thousands of fires are ravaging the Amazon rainforest in Brazil – the most intense blazes for almost a decade.
  • Brazil declared a state of emergency over the rising number of fires in the region. So far this year, almost 73,000 fires have been detected by Brazil’s space research centre.

About Amazon Rainforest

  • The Amazon rainforest stretches across 5.5 million square kilometres, an area far larger than the EU.
  • The Amazon rainforest home to one in 10 species on Earth is on fire. As of last week, 9,000 wildfires were raging simultaneously across the vast rainforest of Brazil and spreading into Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru.
  • The Amazon rainforest is a moist broadleaf tropical rainforest in the Amazon biome that covers most of the Amazon basin of South America.
  • The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil, with 60% of the rainforest, followed by Peru with 13%, Colombia with 10%, and with minor amounts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and France (French Guiana).
  • The blazes, largely set intentionally to clear land for cattle ranching, farming, and logging, have been exacerbated by the dry season.
  • They’re now burning in massive numbers, an 80 percent increase over this time last year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The fires can even be seen from space.

 How did the Amazon fires start?

  • According to Brazil’s space research center (INPE), the country has seen an 80% increase in fires this year, compared with the same period last year.
  • According to INPE, more than half were in the Amazon region, spelling disaster for the local environment and ecology and 99% percent of the fires result from human actions “either on purpose or by accident”.
  • The weekly Brasil de fato reported that Bolsonaro’s anti-environment rhetoric has emboldened farmers, who organised a “fire day” along BR-163, a highway that runs through the heart of the rainforest.
  • The weekly quoted a report by local newspaper, that local farmers had set fire to sections of the rainforest a few days ago to get the government’s attention.
  • While the Amazon rainforest is typically wet and humid, July and August are the onset of the dry season (the region’s driest months).
  • Fire is often used to clear out the land for farming or ranching. For that reason, a vast majority of the fires can be attributed to humans.

 Why the Amazon fires are a cause for concern?

  • It is also home to indigenous communities whose lives and homelands are under threat due to encroachment by the Brazil government, foreign corporations and governments with economic interests in the resource-rich region, and local farmers.
  • Research by scientists Carlos Nobre and Thomas E Lovejoy suggests that further deforestation could lead to the Amazon’s transformation from the world’s largest rainforest to a savanna, which would reverse the region’s ecology.
  • A National Geographic report said the Amazon rainforest influences the water cycle not only on a regional scale, but also on a global scale.
  • The rain produced by the Amazon travels through the region and even reaches the Andes mountain range. Moisture from the Atlantic falls on the rainforest, and eventually evaporates back into the atmosphere.
  • The report said the Amazon rainforest has the ability to produce at least half of the rain it receives. This cycle is a delicate balance.

Consequences of present situation

  • Fires are set deliberately and spread easily in the dry season. The desire for new land for cattle farming has been the main driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since the 1970s.
  • The devastating loss of biodiversity does not just affect Brazil.
  • The loss of Amazonian vegetation directly reduces rain across South America and other regions of the world.
  • The planet is losing an important carbon sink, and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere.
  • If we can’t stop deforestation in the Amazon, and the associated fires, it raises real questions about our ability to reach the Paris Agreement to slow climate change.
  • The growing numbers of fires are the result of illegal forest clearing to create land for farming.


  • Germany and Norway have suspended funding for programmes that aim to stop deforestation in the Amazon and have accused Brazil of doing little to protect the forests.
  • Indigenous groups and environment activists have led protests and criticised Bolsonaro for his comments and policies.
  • Neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay have also struggled to contain fires that swept through woods and fields and, in many cases, got out of control in high winds after being set by residents clearing land for farming. About 7,500 square kilometres of land has been affected in Bolivia.
  • The Brazilian government has set an ambitious target to stop illegal deforestation and restore 4.8 million hectares of degraded Amazonian land by 2030.
  • If these goals are not carefully addressed now, it may not be possible to meaningfully mitigate climate change.
  • The untold number of species of every kind of living thing, many thousands of which have never been described by scientists are suffering. We all need to come together to protect it.

Myths and Truths

Myths have been propagating about the Amazon rainforest that will not help — and could exacerbate — the problem that these fires have caused. One fact remains quite clear: The fires in the Amazon constitute an emergency situation that could grow much worse in the coming weeks. And the attention focused on the Amazon now is an opportunity to set in motion a long-term Brazilian strategy to keep the Amazon healthy.

So, what’s true and what’s false? It’s time to set the record straight.

1: The Amazon forest provides 20% of the world oxygen supply

False. There is a very large stock of oxygen in the atmosphere and the net contribution of the Amazon to this stock is quite small. The Amazon forest produces an enormous amount of oxygen each year through photosynthesis, but it also consumes an enormous amount each year through respiration — yes, trees breathe. The net flux of oxygen to the atmosphere varies from year to year, but on average is close to zero.

2: The Amazon forest is on fire

This is true — with a caveat. We do not know how much virgin Amazon forest is on fire right now. Virgin forests in the Amazon are very resistant to fire in normal years but lose that resistance when severe droughts occur. The Amazon is not currently experiencing a severe drought, although we are only halfway through the dry season.

3: The Amazon is approaching a ‘tipping point’

This is true. We are seeing the early signs of a vicious, downward spiral of drought, fire and tree death that is the biggest threat to the Amazon in a warming world. Much of the rainfall in the Amazon is created by the forest itself — through the vapor produced by the forest when water evaporates from tree leaves high off the ground. When forest is cut down, less water vapor goes into the air and droughts become more likely. As deforestation and climate change cause more severe droughts, fires in virgin forests will become more frequent and extensive.

  1. The number of fires in the Amazon this year is unprecedented

False. The number is high but it is not unprecedented. So far, it’s been the biggest fire year since 2010. Based on statistics from the Global Fire Emissions Database, the number of fires in Brazilian Amazon states through August this year is 25% higher than the average number of fires in the same period from 2010-2018. The number of fires each year is correlated with the area of deforestation and the severity of the drought during the dry season.

  1. Amazon deforestation is skyrocketing

Deforestation is climbing, but is still below its historical average. From 1996 through 2005, deforestation in the Amazon averaged roughly 20,000 square kilometres per year. It declined 77% to 4,600 square kilometres in 2012 through an expansion of the forest area under protection, a crackdown on illegal clearing, and restrictions on farm credit and has been rising slowly since then.

Preliminary estimates of Amazon deforestation in 2019 indicate that deforestation is increasing, headed toward the highest annual rate in a decade, totalling 5,884 square kilometres from January through August.

  1. The Amazon forest is doomed

This is false in the near term. The Amazon can be saved if Brazil and other Amazon nations improve their programs for fighting forest fires and re-establish forest cover that has been destroyed. Allowing the forests to grow back naturally and actively restoring forest on degraded land can reverse many of the negative impacts from deforestation.

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