As the world struggles with COVID-19 another disaster has been quietly unfolding.
The worst fires in a decade are burning in the Amazon rainforest.
The Amazon fires are already twice as bad as the devastasting 2019 fires.
Brazil reported 8373 fires in its portion of the Amazon rainforest in the first week of September 2020 – double the amount seen last year, according to the country’s Space research agency.
But it’s not just Brazil. California is also on fire, so is the Arctic Circle, and now Australia’s bushfire season is underway.
Scientists fear that these fires represent a ‘new normal’.
The Brazilian data is backed by the Global Fire Emissions Database project run by NASA, which showed that emissions from fires hit a 10 year high in August.
Fires are increasingly spreading into areas of untouched woodland, with 27 per cent of fires in September in virgin forests.
And the Amazon rainforest, often referred to as the ‘lungs of the Earth’ isn’t just burning, it’s vanishing in smoke.
Currently, there are 28,892 active fires in the Amazon basin alone.
Despite the evidence, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro recently downplayed the severity of the crisis, denying that the Amazon “is going up in flames”.
“While President Bolsonaro keeps denying the Amazon is on fire and coming up with marketing stunts, such as deploying the army to combat forest destruction, the forest continues to burn,” said Rômulo Batista, Amazon campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil.
“The fires are not only a threat to climate and biodiversity, the smoke from the fires adds another threat to the health of people living in a country already strained by the COVID-19 crisis.”
As with last year, researchers have linked these fires to the deforestation that has ramped up across Brazil since Mr Bolsonaro came into power in January 2019.
Under the controversial right-wing leader’s administration, ranchers, farmers, and miners have been given much freer rein to clear the rich rainforest for commercial activity, and setting fires is a cheap way to do that.
The fires in the Amazon are not natural,” Mr Batista said.
“They are criminally set by farmers and land-grabbers to tear the forest down in order to expand the agribusiness.
“What we’ve seen in the field is a consequence of Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental agenda. He has been dismantling environmental protections since he took office.”
In last week’s United States presidential debate, Joe Biden called for a global effort to stop the Amazon fires, suggesting a $20 billion payment to the south-American country to stop deforestation or suffer unspecified “economic consequences”.
Mr Bolsonaro, a far-right climate-change sceptic, hit back at Mr Biden over Twitter.
“As the head of state who has brought Brazil-US relations closer than ever before, after decades of governments that were unfriendly towards the US, it is really difficult to understand such a disastrous and unnecessary declaration,” he wrote on Twitter.
‘The other new normal’
Brazil isn’t the only country feeling the heat.
In the US, California officials warned last month that the record area of 3.1 million acres burned in the state so far this year is likely to keep growing.
“With no significant precipitation in sight, California remains dry and ripe for wildfires,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
Closer to home, on Saturday a bushfire threatened the coastal town of St Helens in Tasmania.
Up north, a “dangerous and uncontrolled” blaze threatened the Queensland town of Cooktown, with residents told to “leave immediately”.
Deforestation may not be the central cause in the fires burning in the US, Siberia or Australia, but climate change has primed the landscapes to burn – and burn big.
Over the past two years, the Arctic, which acts as a carbon sink, has had record fire seasons, releasing huge amounts of carbon back into the air.
Former NSW Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins said the world was entering a different kind of ‘new normal’ when it came to bushfires – fueled by climate change.
“It’s very clear climate change is lengthening the seasons worldwide. Countries like Greenland and Arctic Circle, like Siberia, are burning now,” Mr Mullins said.
And countries like Australia are getting mega-fires we can’t control.”
A Russian Academy of Sciences researcher told Nature last month that almost 20,000 fires across 35 million acres of land had burned in Russia this summer.
Both the Arctic and the Amazon are peatlands – carbon-rich sinks of soils that are made by waterlogged plants decaying over hundreds and thousands of years.
When peat burns, it releases huge amounts of carbon to the atmosphere.
Just this year, fires in Serbia emitted a record 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of almost 63 coal-fired power plants running for a year.
Australia is likely to avoid seeing the same level of death and destruction that it witnessed in the 2019-20 fire season, Mr Mullins explained, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to prepare for mega-fires.
“Thankfully we’re in a La Niña year, which means more regular rain. Already with the rain, we’ve had it’s a totally different moisture profile on the east coast, so we’re not expecting what we had last year,” he said.
But it only takes a week of dry weather and we could have problems, particularly on grass lines.”
For the world to avoid losing its ‘lungs’ while mega-fires sweep across the east coast of Australia and the Arctic burns, we need to take urgent action to halt climate change, Mr Mullins warned.
“The only way we can mitigate it is to take action on emissions. Nothing else will work.”