Weird weather patterns, climate change, forest fires, and many other newsworthy items have captured humanity’s attention. The fires that raged through the Amazon rainforest in 2019 seem like an eternity ago, and yet scientists and researchers are just now piecing together the many impacts the 2019 Amazon fire season had on that region and the world as a whole.
Through data gathered by the European Space Agency’s Climate Change Initiative, researchers are putting together reports that show the short and long term impacts of the fire seasons in the Amazon spanning the last 18 years. Since 2001, an ESA satellite (now two) has been documenting fires in the Amazon and gathering data regarding location, scope, intensity, spread, emissions, and much more. This long term information helps researchers show the emergence of forest fires and connect them with the impacts that climate change, deforestation, and humanity has on the spread or the control of these events. Remote sensing data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instruments on NASA and NOAA satellites is also tracking fire hotspots in the Amazon.
2019 Fire Season in the Amazon
The most recent data regarding the 2019 Amazon fire season showed that there was an increase in the number of fires, as well as the total burn area as compared to 2018. Although the fires increased in that year long period, on average, there was only a slight increase in the total burn area looking at data from the last 18 years.
Fires in the Amazon and in other locations worldwide vary year by year based on environmental factors. Things like continued deforestation or forest degradation, drought, increased temperatures due to climate change, and controlled burns all contribute to the fire conditions. The data gathered by satellites can be hard to interpret, even for experts. Looking at one year compared to another may make it seem like the fires have increased exponentially, but putting that data into a broader context can tell a different story.
The Amazon burned 70% more in 2019 than it did in 2018, but over the last 18 years was only slightly above the usual fire average. Brazil saw a 1.7% increase in total burned area, while Bolivia saw a jump of 51.4%.
Satellites Fighting Fires
The European Space Agency currently has two satellites with the ability to observe and track information regarding forest fires. These two satellites are integral to collecting data regarding forest fires, especially in the vulnerable Amazon rainforest. Earth observing satellites are highly important for collecting this long term data and putting together reports that show the connections between human activity, climate change, and fire risk. This data can be used to create timelines that show the progression of fires and the intensity of these fires in regions like the Amazon.
Earth observing satellites only have a window of a few minutes a day in which they can image forest fires. Researchers are working to expand their capabilities and increase the number of times a day that these satellites can track existing and new forest fires so that more information can be gathered to reflect the realities of forest fires on the ground.
Changes to Amazon Fires
Not only is the Amazon rainforest itself vulnerable to continued wildfires, but the regions around the rainforest are as well. Fires raged across the habitats surrounding the Amazon, including shrublands, savannah, and grassy wetlands. These areas have an increased vulnerability to fires because of deforestation, agriculture, and drought.
Voiland, Adam. Reflecting on a Tumultuous Amazon Fire Season. Earth Observatory. 16 March 2020. Retrieved from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146355/reflecting-on-a-tumultuous-amazon-fire-season
European Space Agency. Burned area trends in Brazil similar to previous years. 6 March 2020. Retrieved from https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth/Burned_area_trends_in_Brazil_similar_to_previous_years