November 8, 2017

Fire in the rainforest


Climate change seems to have hit the world with its full force this past year, contributing to more intense extreme weather. Back-to-back hurricanes devastated the Caribbean islands, monsoon flooding displaced tens of millions in South Asia, and fires raged on nearly every continent for unprecedented periods of time.

When we think of forest fires we tend to imagine dry, coniferous landscapes. Rainforests, known to us as one of the world’s wettest environments, don’t often stand out as being fire prone.

An Indonesian soldier tries to extinguish a forest fire on a peat land at Ogan Komering Ilir in South Sumatra, Indonesia. Photograph: Muhammad Fajri/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Photograph: Muhammad Fajri/Xinhua Press

In 2016 alone, however, a combined area of rainforest the size of New Zealand was lost largely as a result of fire. While some of the loss came from deforestation – logging and clear-cutting for farming and mining – fire played a huge role. In Indonesia, emissions from wildfires in 2015 surpassed emissions from the entire U.S. economy on a day-to-day basis while they burned.

What causes rainforest fires?

Researcher Mikaela Weisse says that “fires don’t happen naturally in tropical rainforests. They’re almost always caused by human use of fire.”

Typically, rainforests permanently wet and humid state make them resistant to fast-spreading fires. Changing climate in recent years, however, has brought about severe drought and high temperatures to tropical rainforests, making rainforests more susceptible to catching fire from man-made sources.

Both logging and fires also thin out forests, making future fires more likely. “Areas that have been burned or partially deforested are more likely to burn again now that they’ve been thinned out,” Weisse says. “There’s more sunlight hitting the forest floor, so that kind of creates a positive feedback loop.”

Those who live on the front lines of climate change cannot afford to wait any longer; those on archipelagos, small islands, coastal lowlands, rapidly desertifying plains, and of course rainforests. They and we cannot afford to wait to see what another 1 degree of warming will do to this planet. We can’t afford to see how much more intense extreme weather can get in the face of climate change.

Keeping trees standing is one of the most effective ways for rainforest communities to remain resilient. Trees protect communities from flooding, provide them with food and housing materials, and help contribute to mitigating climate change on a global scale.

Let's end deforestation, and reduce the risk of rainforest wildfires

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