Fires in southern Amazon could double in warming climate

satellite image of fires' smoke in Bolivia.

(NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey)

Manmade climate change will double the area burned by fires in the southern Amazon and push fire into protected areas. However, avoiding new deforestation can have an equally massive impact, cutting total net fire emissions in half and helping prevent fires from escaping into protected areas and indigenous lands. That’s according to research published in the journal Science Advances that included scientists from Woodwell Climate Research Center (formerly Woods Hole Research Center) and our partners at IPAM Amazônia.

Results from an ecosystem-fire model suggest that Amazon fire regimes will intensify under both low- and high- greenhouse gas emission scenarios in the coming decades. Projections show that by 2050, up to 16% of the region’s forests could be burned at least once, emitting up to 17.0 petagrams (Pg) of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere.

The good news is that the simulations also show that avoiding new deforestation could reduce net emissions by 38% under a low global emissions scenario (RCP2.6) and 56% under a high global emissions scenario (RCP8.5D). Preventing repeated burning could also promote faster forest recovery of carbon stocks, given that 26% of the areas burned, did so more than once.

“What this paper shows is that the actions we take now, both in fossil fuel emissions and in forest protection, will reverberate for generations to come. We can’t deforest the Amazon and expect trees to regrow the same way in a changed climate. Today and tomorrow’s hotter and drier conditions mean that many historically forested areas will face new challenges to protect themselves against wildfires,” said Dr. Paulo Brando, Woodwell scientist and lead author of the study.

Even protected areas are projected to burn more frequently and intensely. While moist conditions currently prevent fires from spreading in the forest understory, those areas are projected to become more vulnerable to fire as severe droughts become more common.

“This study illustrates the urgency of our recently launched Amazon fundraising initiative (Fighting climate change by ending tropical deforestation). Any viable solution to global climate change requires that Amazon forests remain intact so they can continue to sequester carbon. But 2019 saw the worst deforestation and fires in a decade, making it more difficult to guarantee their future. With additional support, [Woodwell Climate] and IPAM are poised to harness science and collaborative policy innovation to save these forests,” said Dr. Michael Coe, Woodwell scientist and a co-author of the study.

At WHRC’s donation website, you can make a contribution specifically to the Woodwell/IPAM Amazon Fund.

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