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The Amazon is on fire. Is it worse than normal?

Note: On 27 August 2019 we updated the section, ‘How does the number of fire alerts compare to previous years?’

By now you’ve probably heard the Amazon is burning. Twitter is in uproar and Europe’s leaders are threatening to block trade with Brazil. As I read the dramatic headlines, I couldn’t help but wonder what’s made this year so different to previous years. So, I decided to take a closer look at the data and separate the facts from the feelings.

How many fires are there in Brazil right now?

The numbers are different depending on what data you look at.

INPE, Brazil’s space research agency, reports the number of fires that have been detected by a variety of satellite systems, including NASA. That number is more than 75,000 fires between 1 January 2019 and 21 August 2019.

On the other hand, Global Forest Watch Fires reports the number of fire alerts detected by NASA satellites. There was a total of 647,548 fire alerts between 1 January and 21 August 2019.

What these data cannot tell us is how much area has been burned.

The fire alerts indicate a fire is happening but not how big it is. We have to wait for the tree cover loss data to get that information. The most accurate deforestation figures come from PRODES monitoring system, but these won’t be available until later this year.

Which Brazilian states have reported the most fires?

According to Global Forest Watch Fires, the states of Mato Grosso, Pará, Roraima, and Amazonas recorded the highest numbers of fire alerts between 1 January 2019 and 21 August 2019. The Amazon rainforest covers all of these states.

Number of fire alerts by province. Mato Grosso: 113,741; Pará: 84,821; Roraima: 71,033; and Amazonas: 56,091. Alerts detected 1 January to 21 August 2019. Data: Global Forest Watch Fires.

Are the fires happening within protected areas?

20% of the fire alerts between 1 January and 21 August this year were detected within protected areas. (GFW Fires).

Global Forest Watch makes it easy to layer fire alert data onto a map of Brazil’s protected areas. Zooming into the map gives a clear view of where fires are happening, and in which protected areas. As you can see, fires are happening across Brazil.

Map of Brazil’s protected areas and the last 72 hours of VIIRS fire alert data. Data: Global Forest Watch accessed on 22 August 2019.
A close up of VIIRS fire alert data layered with protected area locations. Data: Global Forest Watch, accessed 22 August 2019.

It’s important to distinguish between fires that happen within intact forest landscape areas and those that happen in places that have already been disturbed. A fire in a previously untouched part of the forest will have a bigger impact on biodiversity than a fire that’s happening on a farmer’s plot of cultivated land. According to data from Global Forest Watch Fires, 7% of fire alerts were detected in an intact forest landscape between 1–21 August 2019.

Location of fire alerts in relation to areas of intact forest landscapes. Data: Global Forest Watch

Location of VIIRS fire alerts in the past 24 hours in relation to areas of intact forest landscapes. Data: Global Forest Watch, accessed on 23 August 2019.

How does the number of fire alerts compare to previous years?

This is where the story in the news begins to diverge from the data on Global Forest Watch. Headlines announced a record number of fires in the Amazon: 85% more than last year , according to INPE, Brazil’s space research agency.

However, widgets and graphics on Global Forest Watch are reporting that the number of VIIRS fire alerts up to the week of 8 August 2019 are average compared to previous years. The last big spikes in fire alerts and subsequent tree cover loss occurred in 2016 and 2017, when drought led to an increase in the number of fires. However, it’s still early in Brazil’s dry season and we don’t know if the rate of fire alerts will decrease or increase.

Update on 27 August 2019: Analysis for the week of 13 August 2019 shows that the number of fire alerts is high compared to the same week in previous years. We will continue updating this story as more analysis becomes available.

Analysis for the week of 13 August reports that the number of VIIRS fire alerts is high compared to the same week in previous years. Data: Global Forest Watch, accessed 27 August 2019.
Map of VIIRS fire alerts in Brazil alongside the Global Forest Watch data widget that shows the number of fire alerts is average compared to the same week in previous years. Data: Global Forest Watch, accessed 23 August 2019.
A closer look at the data widget that shows the number of fire alerts in Brazil May, June and July was average compared to the same period in previous years. Data: Global Forest Watch, accessed 23 August 2019.
A graph of MODIS fire alerts dating back to 2001. What we’re seeing this year is not yet comparable to the number of fire alerts reported in 2007, when MODIS alerts peaked highest. Data: Global Forest Watch Fires.

Why is no one talking about Russia?

In comparison, the number of fire alerts in Russia right now is unusually high. But hardly anyone is talking about it on social media. No one is demanding that Russia put out the fires that are burning in Siberia, but aren’t they just as important as the Amazon?

Widget showing that the number of VIIRS fire alerts is unusually high compared to the same week in previous years. Data: Global Forest Watch, accessed 23 August 2019.
Map showing the location of VIIRS fire alerts in Russia in the past 24 hours. Data: Global Forest Watch, accessed 23 August 2019.

So why is everyone talking about the Amazon?

There are three main reasons why people are talking about the Amazon.

  1. “Natural fires are very rare in the Amazon, so all, or almost all, the fires we are seeing are set by humans.” Mikaela Weisse, Global Forest Watch, quoted in the New York Times, 21 August 2019.
  2. Brazil has a new President who is vocally anti-environment and supportive of farmers, loggers and miners who want to clear forests for commercial purposes.
  3. The Amazon helps our planet maintain a stable climate, has a high biological diversity, and is home to many indigenous peoples’ .

Now let’s dig a little deeper.

Most fires are deliberate.

Slash and burn is a normal agricultural practice in Brazil. Farmers burn back land to prepare it for replanting, either with crops, or with grass on which cattle can graze. Some of fires started this year will be attributed to this practice. Leaving aside the debate on whether or not people should be doing this at all; slash and burn becomes a bigger issue when the fires burn out of control and affect intact or undisturbed areas of forest.

However, it’s also acknowledged that destroying intact forest with fire is a tactic used by illegal land grabbers to take control over land they have no right to use. One report in The Intercept describes how land grabbers used machetes to clear a path into the Amazon so that motorcycles could bring in chainsaws and kerosene to clear the trees. Then, as the ground was still smoking, a helicopter flew in to spread grass seed and convert the area into grazing pastures.

Beef and soy are big business in Brazil. There’s a lot of money to be made, and that’s why people are prepared to break the law. Tools such as Trase make it easier for us to see where the production of commodities, such as soy, are linked to deforestation. Informed by open data such as this, we can exert influence over business by demanding that they verify that their products are deforestation free. Trase is transforming our understanding of agricultural commodity supply chains, and we’re proud to be collaborating with Stockholm Environment Institute and Global Canopy to develop it.

This map shows where deforestation linked to soy production has happened in protected areas. Data: Trase, accessed 23 August 2019.

The Bolsonaro effect.

The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s newest President kick-started a wave of illegal land grabs in 2018. Even though Bolsonaro didn’t officially take office until January 2019, his vocal anti-environment rhetoric has encouraged farmers, loggers, and miners alike. Brazil’s environment ministry has been ordered to issue less fines to those who break the law, and the protection of indigenous areas is not being upheld.

With leadership such as this, the global community has had to step up and demand protection for Brazil’s rainforests. France and Ireland are already threatening to block a trade deal with South American nations in response to the Amazon fires.

But when it comes to talking about the Amazon, sensational headlines support Bolsonaro. He’s already said that the deforestation data released by his own space research agency is “lies.” Misinformation and incorrect facts will only feed into his accusations that people are lying about what’s happening in the Amazon. We’ve written before about the importance of reading with a critical eye — question and verify everything you share online.

The lungs of the Earth.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. It’s one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. It’s also home to four hundred indigenous tribes. There’s a lot to lose when the Amazon burns.

The Amazon also has a critical role in stabilising the climate of our planet. Every year it absorbs a quarter of all the carbon that’s taken up by forests. With so much carbon stored in the trees and in the soil, we need to keep it intact if we want reduce our carbon emissions. When there is so much at stake, it’s no wonder people are passionate about the Amazon. We have to look after it.

So what can we do?

Talking about the Amazon is important, but it’s not the only thing we can do. Many everyday products like coffee, soy, cocoa, and corn come from Brazil, and we can choose products that are sustainably sourced and free from deforestation. Demand greater transparency from the companies you buy from.

We can also vote for politicians and governments that support the rights of the environment and indigenous peoples. Politicians reflect the demands and needs of their constituents. If we put people that care about the environment in charge, we can trust them to make decisions that are good for the planet.

When you talk about the Amazon with your friends or post about it online, share facts and be specific about what action you want to see happen. Question sensational headlines. Platforms like Queimadas, Global Forest Watch, and Global Forest Watch Fires give everyone access to open data that we can use to check what we read. Through these platforms cut through the misinformation and call out the hyperbole. When we have access to data, we gain power. And when we have power, we can change the world.

Editor’s note: The Global Forest Watch program did not contribute to the research or writing of this blog. The views expressed here do not represent the views of Global Forest Watch. This blog was was prepared and written by the team at Vizzuality.

Additional information about the data.

Global Forest Watch Fires data uses real-time satellite data from NASA’s Active Fires system (VIIRS plus MODIS) and combines it with satellite imagery, maps of land cover and concessions, weather data and air quality data.

Global Forest Watch uses VIIRS data to report fire alerts.

What is MODIS?

The Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) delivers global MODIS-derived hotspots and fire locations. The active fire locations represent the center of a 1-kilometer pixel that is flagged by the MOD14/MYD14 Fire and Thermal Anomalies Algorithm as containing one or more fires within the pixel.

Citation: NASA. “FIRMS Active Fires.” Accessed through Global Forest Watch on 23 August.

What is VIIRS?

The VIIRS active fires data (VNP14IMGT) is the latest fire monitoring product to FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System), which identifies global fire locations in near-real time. Information is collected from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor, and processed with a fire detection algorithm to flag active fires. Each dot on the map represents the center of a 375 meter pixel that has been flagged by the algorithm.

Citation: NASA FIRMS. “VIIRS Active Fires.” Accessed through Global Forest Watch on 23 August.

I’d like to say a big, big thank you to Ed, Rodrigo, Alicia and Craig for your input and help with this blog!



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