The latest climate-change-disaster-du-jour was the lead story in many newsfeeds and headlines around the globe. The report that the Amazon was burning at unprecedented rates due to man-made global warming was tailor-made for the climate-catastrophe crowd to promote fear of impending planet-wide doom.
The reliably alarmist CNN headline was Amazon rainforest burning at record rate, while over at the New York Daily News the writer screamed, The Amazon rainforest is burning. Be afraid. Most reporting included some variation on the theme that “the lungs of the world are burning.” In a tweet, French President Emmanuel Macron called upon world leaders to place the fires in the Amazon at the top of their agenda when they meet for the Group of Seven summit: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire.”
The source of this alarm is an ostensibly reliable source, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. However, a closer look reveals some real problems with the data. First, the satellite fire data referenced only began in 2013, so six years of data is hardly long enough to make statements about “record breaking” in any context. Secondly, the satellite data collected was not intended to be used as a counting tool for number of fires, but rather as a readiness alert system to identify fires before they rage out of control. It turns out that the same fire might be counted more than once to ensure that none are missed.
Likely the most shared image of the “devastation” was a NASA satellite image across most of the Amazon showing smoke from fires in many areas. What was not shared was the caption NASA provided which states, in part, “As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years (emphasis added).”
According to NASA’s Global Fire Emissions Database, activity is above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia, but so far is below average in Mato Grosso and Pará. The overall numbers are pretty much in line with historic data that goes back to 2003, much longer than the Brazilian data and with satellite data analysis specifically designed to do the task of counting the fires rather than simply alerting government personnel of danger.
A little background on Amazon fire is in order to put these yearly fires in perspective. The fire season in the Amazon begins with the dry season in late July and peaks in mid-September before ending in November. Nearly all of the fires are intentionally set because dry lightning strikes are rare and it is difficult to begin a fire in a damp rain forest.
Ranchers have used fire as a method of clearing the forest since that is much easier than felling the timber. It is estimated that up to 15% of the original forest has been cleared in this manner, with most of that occurring in the 1990s and 2000s before conservation efforts slowed the loss of forest.
Fires are rare during much of the year, because it is difficult to start and spread them due to the exceedingly wet nature of the climate. During the dry season, land that has already been cleared is typically burned periodically to regenerate and maintain farmland or pasture. Much of the fire that is being reported as virgin tropical rainforest is existing grassland or farmland being regenerated using fire as a tool.
The Amazon rainforest has lost ground over the last several decades but globally, tree cover has increased nearly one million acres since the early 1980s according to a recent study. This increase of trees in the temperate, subtropical, and boreal climatic zones are more than offsetting the declines in the tropics. Global warming has been falsely blamed as the root problem in the tropical climes for deforestation, but is directly responsible for part of the expansion as warming allows trees to grow higher up on mountains and expand into higher latitude areas.
The Amazonian rainforest is a powerful and necessary ecological niche and the conservation efforts have been effective at stemming the worst of deforestation abuses. The promotion of alarmist and false information misdirects the energies of people, including world leaders, and undermines trust in media and public institutions.