Humans, More Than Drought, Are Fueling the Amazon’s Flames

The fires in the Amazon are concentrated along transportation corridors, areas of recent settlement, and agricultural activity.

FROM HIS OFFICE in Greenbelt, Maryland, Doug Morton can see the Amazon burning.

He watches images from NASA satellites that circle the tropics four times a day, their cameras pointed at the trees below to produce images from visible light, infrared, and thermal data. The fires are fueled not only by a rise in global temperatures but also by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. The fiery, anti-environment populist has encouraged settlements in the Amazon region, sacked the head of the government agency that monitors deforestation from space, and just this week blamed NGOs for setting the fires to make him look bad.

But NASA satellite images show that the fires are the result of Bolsonaro’s push to develop the Amazon. And experts say they may have consequences for the rest of the planet.

“When we look from space we see that economic activities, instead of drought, are driving the fires,” says Morton, an earth systems scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “They are occurring along transportation corridors and the leading edges of the states of Amazonas and Mato Grosso, where there has been recent settlement and expansion of agriculture. This is an economic signal, not a climate signal.”

On Tuesday, a satellite took this image of forest fires burning across three Brazilian states. Smoke is rising to the stratosphere and forming its own cloud system.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.