Humans, More Than Drought, Are Fueling the Amazon's Flames

From his office in Greenbelt, Maryland, Doug Morton can see the Amazon burning.He watches images from NASA satellites that circle the tropics four times a day, their cameras pointed at the trees below to produce images from visible light, infrared, and thermal data. The fires are fueled not only by a rise in global temperatures but also by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. The fiery, anti-environment populist has encouraged settlements in the Amazon region, sacked the head of the government agency that monitors deforestation from space, and just this week blamed NGOs for setting the fires to make him look bad.But NASA satellite images show that the fires are the result of Bolsonaro’s push to develop the Amazon. And experts say they may have consequences for the rest of the planet.
“When we look from space we see that economic activities, instead of drought, are driving the fires,” says Morton, an earth systems scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “They are occurring along transportation corridors and the leading edges of the states of Amazonas and Mato Grosso, where there has been recent settlement and expansion of agriculture. This is an economic signal, not a climate signal.”

On Tuesday, a satellite took this image of forest fires burning across three Brazilian states. Smoke is rising to the stratosphere and forming its own cloud system. NASA
Since his election, Bolsonaro has encouraged settlers to invade protected indigenous areas and natural parks that had been off limits for decades. He's also weakened Brazil's environmental enforcement agencies that are charged with protecting the rainforest from illegal logging and clear-cutting.The Amazon rainforest might seem far away, and superficially the forest fires might seem less damaging to people and property in Brazil than the out-of-control wildfires that have ravaged California and the western United States in recent years. But the Amazon is important because it acts as a vast sink for carbon dioxide. The huge forests slow the rise of the global climate by exchanging CO2 for oxygen. Amazonian soils also help keep carbon locked up, while trees retain water vapor and create clouds that keep the entire South America region cool.
Left unchecked, a rapidly burning Amazon could kick the global thermostat up a notch. The deforestation and burning in Brazil are happening at the same time as big fires in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, while NOAA officials announced recently that July 2019 was the planet’s hottest month on record.