Striking photos show the devastation wreaked by record-breaking fires in the Amazon rainforest
- The Amazon rainforest is burning at a record rate: The Brazilian Amazon has experienced more than 74,000 fires this year, whereas last year's total was around 40,000.
- About 10,000 of the 2019 fires have started in the past couple of weeks.
- Some of these fires were started by farmers and loggers seeking to use Amazonian land for industrial or agricultural purposes. But once blazes start, hot temperatures and dry conditions because of climate change enable the flames to spread farther and faster.
- These photos show the extent of the fires' devastation.
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Nearly 10,000 fiery infernos are raging across the Amazon, razing tropical vegetation and trees.
Since August 15, more than 9,500 new forest fires have started across Brazil, primarily in the Amazon rainforest basin. The largest state in Brazil, Amazonas, has declared a state of emergency. Smoke from the recent fires spread thousands of miles this week, darkening the sky in São Paulo on Monday.
This year so far, scientists have recorded more than 74,000 fires in Brazil - nearly double 2018's total of about 40,000 fires. The surge marks an 83% increase in wildfires over the same period of 2018, Brazil's National Institute for Space Research reported.
As the world's largest rainforest, the Amazon plays a crucial role in keeping our planet's carbon-dioxide levels in check. Plants and trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the air in their process of photosynthesis. This is why the Amazon, which covers 2.1 million square miles, is often referred to as the "lungs of the planet": The forest produces 20% of the oxygen in our planet's atmosphere.
Not only has the Amazon been hit hard by fires this summer, it also experienced record-breaking deforestation last month. In July, the rainforest lost an area more than twice the area of Tokyo.
If too much of the Amazon disappears, that could trigger a "dieback," in which the Amazon is transformed into savannah-like habitat and in the process releases 140 billions tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
These images show what the devastation in the Amazon looks like.
The map below shows every fire that's started across Brazil since August 13, 2019.
NASA satellites have also spotted the many fires raging in the western Brazilian Amazon.
According to Reuters, parts of the rainforest smell like a barbecue.
The fires are directly linked to deforestation, since farmers sometimes set the forest ablaze to make room for livestock pastures and crop fields.
July set a new record for the most deforestation of the Amazon in one month: The Amazon shrunk by 519 square miles (1,345 square kilometers).
That's nearly twice the size of New York City.
Data from Brazilian satellites indicated that about three football fields' worth of Amazonian trees fell every minute in July.
During the Amazon's dry season, blazes can also spark from natural sources, like lightning strikes.
Typically, that dry season runs from July to October, peaking in late September. Wetter weather during the rest of the year minimizes the risk of fires at other times.
But warmer temperatures and drier conditions linked to climate change make it easier for both these natural and intentionally lit fires to get out of control.
That extra heat and dryness enable blazes to grow bigger than they otherwise might have.
In total, the recent blazes have created a layer of smoke estimated to be 1.2 million square miles wide.
By Monday, smoke plumes had spread from the western state of Amazonas to the nearby states of Pará and Mato Grosso, and even blotted out the sun in São Paulo — a city more than 2,000 miles away.
The Amazon rainforest is a source of life support for our planet, since its plants and trees produce 20% of the world's oxygen.
But if enough of the Amazon burns or gets cut down, it could pass a tipping point that would lead it to disappear entirely and irreversibly.
In that scenario, known as a "dieback," the rainforest would get converted into an African savannah-type habitat.
That would spell disaster for Amazonian flora and fauna, of course, and it would also lead to the release of 140 billion tons of stored carbon dioxide.
That CO2 would then further warm the planet. Once this dieback starts, the forest would be "beyond the reach of any subsequent human intervention or regret," according to the Intercept.
Brazil controls a lion's share of the Amazon. But Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has indicated that protecting the rainforest is not one of his top priorities.
Bolsonaro supports development projects like a highway and hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.
His administration has also cut down on the seizing of illegally harvested timber. In 2018, the Brazilian government seized 883,000 cubic feet of illegal timber. But as of May 15, 2019, Bolsonaro's government agencies had seized only 1,410 cubic feet, Pacific Standard reported.
Between January and May, Bolsonaro's government also lowered the number of fines it levied for illegal deforestation and mining (down 34% from the same period in 2018) and decreased its monitoring of illegal activity in the rainforest.
When Reuters asked Bolsonaro about the record-breaking fires in Brazil, he pointed to the fact that it's a time of year when farmers purposefully use fire to clear land — a seasonal cycle called "queimada."
Bolsonaro also suggested — without evidence — that non-governmental organizations are setting the fires to damage his reputation.
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