The Amazon rainforest is burning at a record rate. Here's what's going on

Wildfires have proliferated in the Amazon rainforest this year, producing fears about the impacts of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies and how the damage could contribute to climate change.

Brazil’s space research center, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), released data this week showing that wildfires had reached a record high in the country. The center, which began tracking wildfires in 2013, said that Brazil has experienced more than 74,000 wildfires so far this year, an 84 percent uptick over the same period in 2018.

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The damage in the Amazon could be extremely detrimental to efforts to combat climate change. Home to millions of species of plants and animals, the Amazon rainforest is considered to be a crucial carbon store that mitigates the speed of warming climates.

An estimated 20 percent of the Earth’s oxygen is produced in the region alone. While the Amazon rainforest encompasses several South American nations, the majority of it occupies Brazil.

Images of the fires have sparked international alarm, with many placing blame on Bolsonaro, who came into office this year vowing to develop the Amazon for farming and mining despite concerns about the increasing rate of deforestation in the region.

What we know about the fires

Statistics from the INPE show that a total of 74,155 wildfires have been detected in Brazil between January and August of this year, with a majority of them sparking in the Amazon. The research center has also said that it spotted more than 9,500 new forest fires in the country since last Thursday.

Bolsonaro has argued that the rise in fires can be attributed to the time of year, saying that farmers annually use the summer months to clear land.

But INPE researcher Alberto Setzer pushed back against this argument, telling Reuters that “there is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average.”

Wildfires can frequently occur during the dry season in Brazil, but Setzer said that it does not automatically mean it’s the direct cause.

“The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” Setzer said.

The impact they're having 

Amazonas, a state in northwestern Brazil covered almost entirely by the rainforest, on Aug. 9 declared a state of emergency in the south of its state and its capital, Reuters noted. Acre, which borders Peru, has reportedly been in a state of environmental alert due to the fires.

Smoke was covering about half of Brazil as of Tuesday, according to the European Union's satellite program, Copernicus. The map shows smoke reaching the Atlantic Coast. 

 

Images shared on social media on Monday showed giant plumes of smoke causing a daytime blackout in Sao Paulo, a city more than 1,700 miles away from the Amazon rainforest, though some meteorologists have noted that smoke may have come from fires in Paraguay, BBC reported.

Bolsonaro's role

Bolsonaro has faced major scrutiny for the increased rate of wildfires in the Amazon. The president vowed to limit fines for damaging forests during the 2018 presidential campaign, prompting concerns from environmentalists.

The rate of deforestation in the Amazon has increased markedly since he entered office, reaching a rate above three football fields per minute, according to government data obtained by The Guardian last month.

Bolsonaro fired the director of the INPE, Ricardo Galvão, earlier this month after Galvão defended agency data that showed the rate of deforestation rising in the nation. Data from the agency showed deforestation was 88 percent higher in June than the previous year.

Bosonaro called the statistics “lies,” adding that the center’s warning about deforestation hurt the country in trade negotiations, CNN reported.

“I am waiting for the next set of numbers, that will not be made up numbers. If they are alarming, I will take notice of them in front of you,” he told reporters, Reuters noted.

The advocacy group Greenpeace Brazil said fires have increased in  areas most affected by rises in deforestation. 

“Those who destroy the Amazon and let deforestation continue unabated are encouraged in doing so by the Bolsonaro government's actions and policies," Danicley de Aguiar, an Amazon forest campaigner for Greenpeace Brazil, said in a statement to The Hill. "Since taking office, the current government has been systematically dismantling Brazil’s environmental policy."

Bolsonaro has gained a reputation as Brazil’s Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE due in part to his skeptical views of environmental regulation. He said as a presidential candidate in 2018 that environmental policies were “suffocating” the economy and has threatened to withdraw Brazil from the Paris climate agreement.

Why the rainforest is important 

An increase in fires and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest would make it harder for nations signed onto the Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to “well below” 3.6 degrees, The Washington Post reported.

The fires could also severely impact the Amazon’s function as a vital carbon store. The rainforest absorbs a substantial amount of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon that global forests suck up annually, the Post noted.

But its capacity to serve that function has reportedly weakened due to deforestation and altering weather patterns. Global warming could accelerate if the region were to ultimately become a source of carbon emissions, experts fear.