El Niño Could Cause Intense Fire Season in the Amazon

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The dangers of El Niño aren’t over yet as its long lasting effects are yet to be seen and one of the major worries is the possibility of intense fire season in the Amazon.

El Niño played a major role in the drying of the Amazon in 2015 and early 2016 for it altered the rainfall pattern in the region there by reducing the wet season and leaving the region drier at the start of the 2016 dry season than any year since 2002.

Based on the data collected, researchers at NASA and University of California, Irvine have said that the risk of wildfire in the dry season have increased and they are higher than the fire risks in 2005 and 2010 – the years when wildfires burned large areas of Amazon rainforest.

For their fire forecast, researchers used the relationship between climate and active fire detections from NASA satellites to predict fire season severity during the region’s dry season. The forecast model used by scientists was developed in 2011 and this particular model focuses particularly on the link between sea surface temperatures and fire activity. Warmer sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific (El Niño) and Atlantic oceans shift rainfall away from the Amazon region, increasing the risk of fires during dry season months.

Further, the team also used data on terrestrial water storage from the joint NASA/German Aerospace Center (DLR) Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission to follow changes in groundwater during the dry season. GRACE measurements serve as a proxy for the dryness of soils and forests.

On a scale of zero to 100, the risk of severe fire activity in July, August and September is high for six states in Braxil (Acre, Amazonas, Maranhao, Mato Grosso, Para and Rondonia), three departments in Bolivia (El Beni, Pando, and Santa Cruz), and one country (Peru). Credit: Yang Chen, University of California, Irvine
On a scale of zero to 100, the risk of severe fire activity in July, August and September is high for six states in Braxil (Acre, Amazonas, Maranhao, Mato Grosso, Para and Rondonia), three departments in Bolivia (El Beni, Pando, and Santa Cruz), and one country (Peru).
Credit: Yang Chen, University of California, Irvine

This year, scientists say, the condition driven by El Niño are drier than 2005 and 2010. In a bid to track the evolution of the Amazon fire season in near real time researchers have also developed a web tool. Estimated fire emissions from each forecast region are updated daily, based on the relationship between active fire detections – made by the Moderate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite – and fire emissions data from the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) in previous years. So far, however, the region has seen more fires to date than those years, another indicator that aligns with the fire severity forecast.

Fires in the Amazon have multifaceted impact including local, regional, and long-distance impacts. Agricultural fires that escape their intended boundaries can damage neighboring croplands and Amazon forests. Even slow-moving forest fires cause severe forest degradation, as Amazon rainforest trees are not adapted to fire. Together, intentional fires for agricultural management, deforestation, and wildfires generate massive smoke plumes that degrade regional air quality, exacerbating problems with asthma and respiratory illness. Smoke from Amazon fires eventually flows south and east over major urban centers in southern Brazil, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, contributing to air quality concerns.

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