“Fire activity across the Amazon region has spiked

Since the 1970s, tree clearing in the Amazon basin has reduced the size of the Amazon rainforest by roughly 17 percent. That is an area about the size of Texas and Louisiana combined.

While there have been slowdowns and surges in the tempo of forest loss over the decades, recent data indicate that deforestation rates over the past two years have been among the highest in a decade. As a result, smoky satellite images of fires in the southern Amazon have become increasingly common.

The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired a detailed view (above) of fires burning in Amazonas northeast of Vista Alegre do Abunã on August 24, 2021. On the same day, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired the natural-color image below showing several large smoke plumes near the border of the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Rondônia.

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People living in the Amazon basin often light small-scale fires in already cleared areas to maintain pastures and fields, but many of the largest and smokiest fires visible in these images were tied to deforestation, according to a satellite-based fire classification tool developed by Niels Andela (previously at NASA but now at Cardiff University) and Douglas Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Fire activity across the Amazon region has spiked since late July 2021, driven primarily by deforestation fires,” said Morton. “This is clearly the case for northern Rondônia, where our analysis shows that 80 percent of fire detections from the satellites are associated with deforestation fire events.”

August 24, 2021

Morton and colleagues share their insights on South American fires through NASA’s Amazon fire dashboard, a tool that helps observers distinguish between fires that cause more and less ecological damage. Deforestation and understory forest fires (low-intensity blazes that creep along the leaf litter on the forest floor) cause the most lasting damage and contribute to the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Savanna and small clearing fires tend to have short-lived effects. The dashboard assimilates observations of the intensity and patterns of active fire detections by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor. (Read this for more details about how the tool categorizes fires.)

The deforestation fires in this area are notable for their size and intensity. “What is happening there is nothing like the small-scale clearing done by families that was common decades ago,” explained Morton. “These newer clearings are well beyond the scale of what a family could do. We have already identified 10 deforestation fire events in Rondônia that are larger than 50 square kilometers—meaning each one is larger than a combined 7000 soccer fields.”

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