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Amazon rainforest fires got even worse last year

NASA documented a startling jump in ‘the most environmentally destructive types’ of fires

Smoke rises from an illegally lit fire in a section of Amazon rainforest, south of Novo Progresso in Pará state, Brazil, on August 15th, 2020.
Photo by Carl de Souza / AFP via Getty Images

Fires in the Amazon reached devastating new levels in 2020, new NASA satellite imagery shows. The space agency developed a new tool to track fires from space after Brazil’s Amazon suffered a record-breaking year of fires in 2019.

Specialized sensors on satellites collect visible and infrared imagery, which NASA uses to detect thermal anomalies — basically hotspots caused by fire. Its satellites found 1.4 million of those anomalies in the Southern Amazon last year, compared to 1.1 million in 2019.

“Fire activity was up significantly in 2020,” Douglas Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in the announcement today. “All types of fires contributed to the increase, including deforestation fires and understory fires, the most environmentally destructive types.” The effects of these kinds of fires can last for decades.

NASA grouped fires into four different types marked on this map: fires caused by deforestation to make way for industry (red), uncontrolled fires that burn the understory of the forest (green), fires burning in savanna-grasslands (blue), and small fires set by subsistence farmers to clear land (purple). NASA looks at the duration, intensity, and movement of fire “hotspots” to identify what kind of fire is burning.
Image: NASA

Fires caused by deforestation were up 23 percent in 2020 compared to the year before. These blazes are started intentionally to clear parts of the rainforest to make room for cattle ranching and farming. This was the main culprit behind catastrophic fires in 2019, when deforestation in the country hit an 11-year high.

There was a steep 60 percent rise in the most destructive kind of fire: uncontrolled understory fires that spread from a blaze that might have been intentionally set. Large fires aren’t natural in the Amazon’s wet terrain. In a typical year, fires are primarily the result of people setting chopped-down, dried-out trees aflame. But this year, drier conditions in the southeastern Amazon made it easier for human-made blazes to escape into parts of the rainforest that hadn’t been cleared.

“As a result, the scale of the fires in this area was extraordinary and devastating,” Morton said.

Clearing the rainforest to make way for ranches and agriculture is a process that can take several years of logging and burning.
Clearing the rainforest to make way for ranches and agriculture is a process that can take several years of logging and burning.
Image: NASA

The numbers are even more alarming considering how bad 2019 already was. That year, Brazil suffered a more than 80 percent jump in the number of fires compared to 2018, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Since entering office in 2019, Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has worked to open up the Amazon to more development and set aside less land for Indigenous tribes and conservation efforts. NASA found that Indigenous territories saw fewer fires compared to other lands without protections.