Amazon forests threatened: 10% more wildfires than last year, environmental gains may be undone

Anthropogenic climate change has made the forests more prone to wildfires

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 17 October 2023
Photo: iStock__

The number of wildfires in the Amazon forests in the first half of 2023 was 10 per cent higher than in 2022, according to researchers from the University of East Anglia and the University of South Alabama.

This can undermine environmental gains made by reducing deforestation in this biodiversity-rich carbon sink, they added.

“In June 2023, the number of active fires in the Amazon reached the highest peak since 2007. Total fire counts for the first half of 2023 were 10 per cent higher than in 2022,” the researchers wrote in Increasing wildfires threaten progress on halting deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia, an article published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Anthropogenic climate change has made the forests more prone to wildfires, the researchers noted. Drought and prolonged periods of extreme heat have produced more conducive conditions for burning. 

“On top of this, deforestation and the expansion of agriculture have damaged the integrity of the region’s forests and weakened their resilience to drought,” said Matthew Jones, a Reseach Fellow in UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences and a co-author of the letter.

Previously, widespread deforestation was the primary cause for an increase in the number of fires, the scientists added. But with concerted efforts, deforestation has reduced over the years, the letter noted. “Deforestation rates have been falling in 2023, with alerts 42 per cent lower between January and July than in the same period of 2022.”

Despite this, the fact that forest fires have become more frequent indicates that other factors are at play. Gabriel de Oliveira, an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama, is the lead author of the letter, said:

Indeed, only 19 per cent of the fires were related to recent deforestation during January-June 2023, down from 39 per cent in 2022.

Hot and dry conditions wrought by El Nino this year, lag effect of sustained deforestation, poor implementation of environmental laws under the previous government in Brazil and early burning of pastures by landholders may be some of the reasons. 

Indigenous groups have been using fire in their agriculture over millennia but have not experienced megafires like today, the researchers wrote. “The current situation is driven by large-scale actors, climate change and forest fragmentation.”

“But small traditional communities are often blamed, representing a double burden because they also suffer the most when invasive fires damage the forest, leaving it without the game, fruits, timber, medicines and resources they depend on,” said Rachel Carmenta, a lecturer in climate change and international development at UEA and co-author.

Strong, equitable and coordinated international efforts are needed to tackle this growing threat, the researchers highlighted.

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