Scientists and environmental groups 'alarmed' by huge rise in Amazon wildfires

Scientists and environmental groups have expressed alarm after new data revealed there were 28 percent more fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest this July compared with the same time last year.

Satellite images released by Brazil’s space research agency INPE on Saturday revealed 6,803 fires in the Amazon last month. There were 5,318 in July 2019.

“I am super concerned,” Erika Berenguer, an Amazon ecologist and a senior research associate at Britain’s University of Oxford, told NBC News Sunday.

Adding that she was “alarmed by the numbers,” Berenguer said that July was the beginning of “burning season” when areas which have been deforested have to be burned to clear the land.

“This is an indicator that the rest of the burning season is going to be very intense,” she said.

Her comments were echoed by Ane Alencar, science director at Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).

“It’s a terrible sign,” she told the Reuters press agency. “We can expect that August will already be a difficult month and September will be worse yet.”

Image: A tract of Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared by farmers in Rio Pardo (Ricardo Moraes / Reuters)
Image: A tract of Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared by farmers in Rio Pardo (Ricardo Moraes / Reuters)

Brazil is home to 60 percent of the Amazon, which is the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

After analyzing the data, Greenpeace International concluded that more than 1,000 fires were registered in the Amazon on July 30. It said this was the highest number of hotspots on a single day in July since 2005. NBC News was not able to independently verify this.

“We can’t continue to break such records,” the environmental organization said in a tweet.

Greenpeace has previously warned that 2020 could be even more devastating for the rainforest and the Indigenous peoples who call it home.

And a report released by IPAM last fall found that deforestation — and not drought — was the primary driver behind the record fires in 2019.

However, Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate change skeptic, has urged for more development and economic opportunities in the Amazon region, which is often referred to as the “lungs of the planet.”

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With pressure mounting, Bolsonaro’s government announced earlier this month that it planned to ban setting fires in the Amazon for 120 days. Greenpeace called the measure “insufficient.”

The organization shared images of what it said were fires burning in the central state of Mato Grosso despite the ban. It said the photos show smoke, flames, “and just how ineffective the ban has been.”

Bolsonaro also sent the military to fight forest fires starting in May.

The greatest evidence that both of these measures were not effective is the number of fires seen in July, Berenguer said, adding that IPNE has also released data last week to show that July 2020 was already the second worst July on record for deforestation, behind July 2019.

“It’s clearly not working when we see such high deforestation rates combined with a high number of fires,” Berenguer added.

Image: An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho (Bruno Kelly / Reuters)
Image: An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho (Bruno Kelly / Reuters)

Researchers at NASA also warned earlier this month that conditions are “ripe” for an active fire season in the Amazon, saying warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean so far in 2020 have elevated the risk of fires in the southern Amazon.

Warmer surface waters near the equator draw moisture northward and away from the southern Amazon, the space agency said, resulting in the Amazon landscape being dry and flammable. That in turn makes human-set fires used for agriculture and land clearing more prone to growing out of control and spreading, it added.

Berenguer said that this could produce a “double whammy” this year with fires able to sustain themselves even in untouched forest.

IPAM also warned in June that a deforested area of at least 4,500 square kilometers in the Amazon is ready to burn.

“This fallen vegetation on the ground can go up in smoke with the dry season that began in June in another season of intense fire like we observed in 2019,” it said in a statement.

“If this happens, the number of hospitalizations for respiratory problems can increase significantly, putting further pressure on the region’s healthcare system, which is already severely affected by COVID-19.”

Brazil has been struggling to contain the epidemic, with the world’s second highest toll of cases and deaths.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.