Amazon rainforest suffers El Nino blaze

A senior researcher with the Lancaster Environment Centre, Erika Berenguer, has revealed how satellite images show 18,716 fires in the Brazilian Amazon in November 2015 alone, with twelve cities in the region declaring states of emergency because of the vast pillars of smoke.

Berenguer has been investigating rainforest fires around Santarém, a city on the Amazon River's south bank 500 miles from the ocean. She says the streets have been obscured by a thick veil of smoke for five weeks now, and for days on end local people don't see the sun. On many days visibility is down to 500 metres.

It looks like the El Nino phenomenon is to blame, bringing higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. The result is a much more intense dry season in places that are usually humid and wet.

A dry climate worsens  matters

The fires are usually started by farmers to clear areas of land. But when the climate is dry they escape and spread. Oddly, rainforests are particularly vulnerable to fires, unlike temperate woods which are used to regular wildfires and have evolved to cope with them and often benefit from them.

Conservationists fear that the current fire season will destroy as may as 50% of the affected areas' larger trees and most of the smaller ones. Worse still, we don't know how long tropical rainforest takes to recover from fire damage, from both a biomass and biodiversity perspective. For all we know, they may never recover properly.

More frequent, severe El Ninos expected if the climate continues to warm

This year’s El Niño has brought extreme droughts to the Amazon rainforest, and recent forecasts reveal dramatic El Nino events will become more common and more destructive as the climate warms. Some scientists say events like this will triple in frequency by the year 2100. And, of course, more fires mean more carbon emissions.

The issue highlights, once again, the importance of the Paris climate talks. If world leaders are serious about limiting global warming to 2°C – a target we are already set to miss unless we act now and act dramatically –  the remaining forested areas in the humid tropics won't survive. Which in turn has extremely serious implications for human survival.

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