Amazon Deforestation and Fire Update: October 2020
Escalating fires and widespread dry conditions raise concerns about forest degradation.
Amazon forests absorb and store roughly a tenth of human carbon dioxide emissions each year, but this critical carbon sink is threatened by deforestation and degradation of forest health. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined by 70% between 2004 and 2014. In recent years, however, deforestation has increased and fires have followed as people burn the trees they’ve recently cut down.
In 2019, deforestation jumped to the greatest rates in over a decade and fires did also, despite it being a relatively wet year. In 2020, deforestation has dropped to somewhat less than last year’s extent, but is still above average, and fires are up over this time last year. In addition, it is an extraordinarily dry year for much of the eastern Amazon, which could cause large and long-lasting fires if they escape into standing forests.
Building on the deforestation and fire data released regularly by Brazilian government scientists, we present an analysis of the carbon footprint of this year’s deforestation as well as where deforestation is happening and an analysis of the current climate conditions—key information for identifying fire risk hotspots and shaping solutions.
The burning of felled trees following deforestation results in the conversion of carbon previously stored in plant biomass (i.e., in leaves, branches, and stems) to carbon dioxide (CO2), contributing further to the rise in atmospheric CO2 that is the primary driver of planetary warming. In January-September 2020, CO2 emissions committed to the atmosphere as a result of forest clearing are expected to be roughly 256.4 million metric tons (MMT). That’s equivalent to roughly 57.7 million cars and is about 1/2 of Brazil’s annual total CO2 emissions.
Learn more: See Walker et al., 2020, PNAS for details on carbon density calculations.
Nearly 7,600 km2 of forest has been destroyed so far in 2020. This year, as in previous years, most deforestation has taken place on unprotected lands, including private properties and federal lands without a protected status. However, deforestation in protected natural areas has been rising and accounts for 17% of deforestation to date this year, suggesting a need for greater enforcement of existing designations.
Monthly estimates of deforestation in 2019 and 2020 are taken from the Brazilian national space agency Real-Time System for Detection of Deforestation (DETER). DETER estimates are provided each month, but are based on relatively coarse resolution MODIS satellite products. Therefore, values tend to be an underestimate.
Annual deforestation values from 2004-2019 are provided by the Brazilian national space agency Program to Calculate Deforestation in the Amazon (PRODES). The PRODES product is based on 30m resolution Landsat imagery and is therefore a more accurate representation of the total deforestation, but it can only be provided on an annual basis.
Deforestation by Land Tenure
Almost all Brazilian Amazon states had more fires during the first six months of 2020 than the same period in 2019. Despite significantly lower deforestation in September this year compared to last and a ban announced by the Bolsanaro administration in July, fires have continued to escalate and exceeded 2019 levels in the month of September.
We are using active fires hotspot data based on thermal information acquired from the Modis sensor on board the Aqua satellite with the afternoon daily passage. This is the reference satellite data used by the Brazilian National Space Agency to report fire activity in Brazil. The data is a detection of a fire front of at least 30m width and 1m height. All this information is available at Programa Queimadas Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais.
Climate / Drought
Forest fires are not a naturally occurring phenomenon in the Amazon—they are almost always a result of human activities. When deforestation coincides with dry conditions, fires lit to burn felled trees can escape into neighboring forests, destroying or degrading them. Large swaths of the Amazon region are anomalously dry this year (yellow). In particular, August and September 2020 appear to be the driest in more than 20 years, creating a high risk for escaped fire to do severe damage.
The red dots represent locations where deforestation has occurred since October 2019. We chose October as the cutoff because most areas that were deforested in this period will be burned this year.
Climate conditions are represented by the Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI), which characterizes the meteorological drought for a period of 3 months, using monthly precipitation data (CHIRPS daily). At this time scale the index is closely related to soil moisture. It quantifies observed precipitation as a standardized departure from a selected probability distribution function that models the raw precipitation data. The SPI values can be interpreted as the number of standard deviations by which the observed anomaly deviates from the long-term mean. For the operational community, the SPI has been recognized as the standard index that should be available worldwide for quantifying and reporting meteorological drought.
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