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The Amazon Is on Fire—What Can We Do?

The Amazon rainforest—the "lungs of the planet"—is burning. The devastation can be seen from space. Here's why it matters and what you can do to help.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #341

The Amazon rainforest is burning. A blanket of dark smoke covers the Brazilian state of Roraima. A state of emergency was declared in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Over 2,700 kilometers away, the sky suddenly went dark over 12 million people in Sao Paolo, prompting many to post photos with the hashtag #prayforamazonia. The devastation is so large, it can be seen from space.

What caused the fires? Are they being put out? What impact does the burning South American rainforest have on the rest of the world, and what can we do about it?

How big are the fires?

According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE, Brazil’s version of NASA), 72,843 fires have been detected in Brazil since January this year. That’s an 83% increase from the same time period just last year and the highest on record since they began keeping records six years ago. Last week alone saw 9,507 new fires, mostly in the Amazon basin. 

According to the National Institute for Space Research, 72,843 fires have been detected in Brazil since January this year.

Using data from NASA’s EARTHDATA program, which monitors active fires globally, Quartz has produced a map of currently active fires, which stretch across Brazil and South America but are most dense in the Brazilian states surrounding and including the Amazon rainforest. 

What caused the fires?

It is currently the dry season across Brazil when wildfires are not uncommon. However, the frequency and intensity of the current fires cannot be explained by naturally occurring wildfires alone. 

In fact, farmers often take advantage of the dry conditions this time of year to purposefully set fires with the intent of clearing land for cattle ranching. With minimum startup costs and easy access to the land, cattle ranching is an appealing way for those in the rural surrounding areas to earn a living. Farmers first cut the trees down and leave them to dry out. They later set fire to the fallen trees so that their ashes will fertilize the soil. 

Droughts can also lead to more widespread fires in a kind of feedback loop. Starved for water, dead trees provide kindling for growing fires. The carbon stored in those trees, which would ordinarily stay locked there for decades, is instead released into the environment. The carbon ultimately causes global temperatures to rise. Rising temperatures then cause more droughts, and the cycle continues. 

Why the fires in the Amazon matter to the world

Our ecosystems have spent tens of thousands of uneventful years evolving and finding ways for plants, animals, and the environment to coexist. But when we mow down a section of the Amazon rainforest more than half the size of Rhode Island in a single month, we alter that ecosystem at an incredibly fast rate. Deforestation throws all of that careful evolution out of balance. If we push too far into the Amazon for our ranching needs, the area could instead become an arid savannah. 

The fires in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, are a major blow in the fight against climate change.

Even worse, the fires in the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest, are a major blow in the fight against climate change. Rising global temperatures are a direct result of humans releasing more and more greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Tropical rainforests counteract our carbon activity by absorbing some of that carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and storing away that carbon for the tree’s lifetime. As the largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen in our atmosphere—yup, the oxygen we all breathe and need to live—and is referred to as the “lungs of the planet.” 

So when we burn those trees, we lose that source of oxygen. Even worse, we also release stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Any crops planted instead, like soy to feed cattle, absorb only a small fraction of the carbon taken up by rainforests. Replacing those trees with cattle ranches takes this a step further—cattle farming also releases greenhouse gases. 

The Amazon also includes a large amount of indigenous territory. More than 400 tribes rely on the rainforest to preserve their livelihoods and their culture.

The Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen in our atmosphere—the oxygen we all breathe and need to live—and is referred to as the lungs of the planet.

The Amazon rainforest is further home to an incredible array of biodiversity, including 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species, 3,000 different types of fish, 427 mammal species, and 2.5 million types of insects. From pink river dolphins to poison dart frogs, spider monkeys to exotic mushrooms, these species rely on the Amazonian ecosystem. The plants of the Amazon aren’t just pretty either—they could potentially hold the secret for the next big disease cure. Indigenous people like the Yanomami have been using chemical compounds found in plants and animals for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. 

But so far, less than half of one percent of the plant species have been studied in detail to test for their disease-curing potential—less than half of one percent!—and with the raging fires, we may be too late. 

What can you do?

Brazil has been slow to act to contain the fires. Brazilian President Bolsonaro—who took office in January around the same time the frequency and intensity of the fires began to increase—has stated his intentions to develop the Amazon for logging, ranching, farming and mining. The Brazilian dry season typically extends from March to November, so there is also still a while to go before rains can help douse the fires.

Demonstrators across the globe, including in Zurich, Dublin, Paris, London, Madrid, and Copenhagen, have been making noise about the initial lack of media coverage about the Amazon fires. Protestors are putting political pressure on other countries to get involved. Social media campaigns have asked billionaires to donate, similar to what happened when the Notre Dame cathedral burned in April. 

So how can you help? 

Donate, if you're able

If you have money to donate, find an organization already working to protect the Amazon rainforest. For example, the World Wildlife Fund lists exactly what they will do with your donation, including immediate support for affected communities and advocacy for stronger laws in Brazilian parliament. The Rainforest Trust, the Rainforest Alliance, and the Arbor Day Foundation are a few other examples. 

Pay attention to the products you buy

Hold businesses accountable by only shopping for products that are officially stamped as “rainforest safe.” These include labels like Rainforest Alliance Certified and those from the Forest Stewardship Council

Go meat-free

As a not-so-subtle CNN headline lays out for us, “The Amazon is burning because the world eats so much meat.” The Amazon hosts around 200 million head of cattle and is the largest exporter of beef in the world. An estimated 80 percent of the ongoing deforestation in the Amazon (or around 450,000 square kilometers) is due to cattle ranching to supply ~25 percent of the world’s beefCorned beef in the UK in particular is being singled out as being tied to companies charged with deforestation of the Amazon. Less demand will make cattle ranching less appealing. 

GET MORE EVERYDAY EINSTEIN

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com. Listen and subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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