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El Niño may cause more intense fire season in Amazon this year

Researchers at NASA and the University of California Irvine made the prediction using two models that may be applicable beyond the Amazon.

By Stephen Feller
El Niño may cause more intense fire season in Amazon this year
The smoke from multiple fires in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil rises over forested and deforested areas in this photograph taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on Aug. 19, 2014. Photo by NASA

WASHINGTON, June 29 (UPI) -- The wildfire risk in the Amazon rainforest is higher than in the most recent two drought seasons, raising concern that large parts of the rainforest could burn during the upcoming fire season.

Researchers at NASA and the University of California Irvine made the announcement following analysis of previous seasons and the amount of rainfall in the Amazon during the El Niño last year, finding they expect far greater swaths of the rainforest to be dry enough to ignite.

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The effects of agricultural fires -- ignited to burn off dry material that can ignite into difficult-to-control wildfires -- that escape their boundaries can cause greater damage, as can slow-moving forest fires. Because rainforest trees are not adapted to fire, wildfires can be worse near and in the Amazon.

"When trees have less moisture to draw upon at the beginning of the dry season, they become more vulnerable to fire, and evaporate less water into the atmosphere," Jim Randerson, a scientist at the University of California Irvine, said in a press release. "This puts millions of trees under stress and lowers humidity across the region, allowing fires to grow bigger than they normally would."

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The researchers developed a web tool, the Global Fires Emissions Database, which is updated daily using fire detection signals from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradometer instrument on NASA's Terra satellite and fire emissions data from previous years.

In the case of the Amazon, the researchers employed the Amazon fire forecast model developed in 2011 to predict that warmer sea surface temperatures because of El Niño shifting rainfall away from the rainforest, making it more dry and increasing the risk of fire.

The researchers said the rainforest has far more dry conditions than in 2005 and 2010, which were the last two fire seasons following a drought in the area.

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In addition to the rainforest, researchers identified nine regions outside the Amazon where fire risk may be predictable three to six months before peak fire activity, allowing forecasts to be designed for Central America and some countries in Southeast Asia.

An analysis of data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite mission shows greater soil water deficits in 2016 than previous drought years with high Amazon fire activity. Photo by Yang Chen/University of California Irvine

The potential importance of this is not lost on experts in Brazil.

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"Fire forecasts three to six months before peak fire activity are important to identify areas with higher fire probability for integrated planning in support of local actions," said Liana Anderson, a scientist at the National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters.

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