Wildfires Are Ravaging the Amazon—and NASA Can See the Smoke From Space

Brazilian Amazon burns to be cleared for pasture space
Pedarilhos / Shutterstock

Update: Amnesty International has released a statement blaming the government of Brazil, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, for lax regulation that has led to increased deforestation and disastrous wildfires in the Amazon. The organization has documented “illegal land invasions and arson attacks” near indigenous communities in the rainforest, and the statement notes that deforestation has doubled since last year in the areas the group visited. 

“The responsibility to stop the wildfires that have been raging in the Amazon rainforest for several weeks now lies squarely with President Bolsonaro and his government,” said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

In São Paulo, Brazil, Monday looked like it was the end of the world. The sky turned black around 3 in the afternoon, caused by smoke from the burning Amazon rainforest more than 1,700 miles away. The Amazon has been burning for three weeks, at rates unprecedented for Brazil. Satellite images from NASA show that the smoke can be seen from space.

The Brazilian rainforests play a key role in slowing climate change, as they absorb the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere—on a massive scale—replacing it with oxygen. The Amazon also contains over 43,000 species of flora and fauna, as well as half of the world’s tropical forests—that’s 1.4 billion acres of trees.

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But deforestation continues to hit the region hard. An article in National Geographic last year said, “Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers) of forest, according to the World Bank—an area larger than South Africa.”

The smoke from wildfires in the Amazon as seen from the NOAA-20 satellite
The smoke from wildfires in the Amazon as seen from the NOAA-20 satellite Courtesy Image

While wildfires are actually common in the Amazon during the dry season, they’re not natural. This time of year is dubbed queimada, or “burning,” as it’s when ranchers illegally set acres of rainforest ablaze to clear land for cattle. But the Amazon has been running dry, according to the WWF. Over the past century, its worst droughts have happened in the last 14 years. Three of those droughts, according to an American study, were considered once-in-a-century events. These conditions not only spark forest fires, but they can also blow the ranchers’ fires out of proportion.

This year, the rainforest has experienced exponentially more wildfires than usual—about 74,155 and counting in Brazil alone, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research. That’s an 83 percent increase from this same time last year. At this rate, 2019 will see twice as many fires as 2018. You can see the apocalyptic images from São Paulo here:

Part of the blame for the wildfires has also fallen to Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. Many activists credit the region’s continued devastation to his lax environmental policies. In July, Bolsonaro said in interviews that the Amazon is Brazil’s to do with as it pleases: “We preserve more [rainforest] than anyone. No country in the world has the moral right to talk about the Amazon. You destroyed your own ecosystems,” he said.

Slash-and-burn agriculture in the Peruvian Amazon, which clears the way for maize cultivation
Slash-and-burn agriculture in the Peruvian Amazon, which clears the way for maize cultivation Dr Morley Read / Shutterstock

His mission as president has been to reinvigorate Brazil’s economy by any means necessary, including encouraging logging and mining in the rainforests that the rest of the world depends on. Bolsonaro has been called “Captain Chainsaw” in the past, which should give you an idea of his environmental policies. He also fired the director of the National Institute for Space Research, Ricardo Galvão, last week after Galvão defended his wildfire data. Some sources say Bolsonaro is seeking a private company to take over deforestation monitoring.

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But the agency has stuck to its guns, saying its data is accurate—that the wildfires this year are worse than any year on record since 2010. And that certainly seems to be the case: European satellite imaging shows a line of smoke from the fires extending over half of Brazil, reaching toward the Atlantic Ocean.

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