by Global Health Security Correspondent and Sarah Newey, The Telegraph, August 26, 2019
Brazil's Amazon rainforest has witnessed tens of thousands of fires so far this year, with some of the most intense blazes to ravage the region for almost a decade.
According to the Brazilian space agency, the National Institute for Space Research, there have been more than 75,000 forest fires in the country since January – an 84 per cent increase on the same period in 2018.
More than 9,000 fires have been recorded in the last week alone.
But why is Brazil's rainforest on fire – and is it as bad as images suggest?
What is causing the fires?
It is common for the Amazon to witness fires during the dry season – which runs from July to October – but satellite images show the burning this year is spreading at an unprecedented rate.
On Wednesday, the smoke from the fires was so bad that it caused an hour-long blackout in Sao Paulo, located almost 1,700 miles away. The clouds can also be seen from space.
The Amazon is the world's largest rainforest and is home to about three million species of plants and animals, and some one million indigenous people.
The fires can be caused by naturally occurring events, such as lightning strikes, but are also linked to deforestation.
The fires are often started deliberately, by farmers and loggers illegally clearing land for crops or grazing.
Alberto Setzer, from Brazil's space agency, told local media that the fires "are all of human origin, some purposeful and some accidental, but always by human action."
Cattle ranchers account for roughly 80 per cent of deforestation in the region, and Brazil's Amazon one of the world's largest exporters of beef – accounting for about one quarter of the global market.
Is Brazil's President to blame?
Activists say that the anti-environment rhetoric of Brazil's President, Jair Bolsonaro, has given farmers and ranchers free rein to cut down trees without impunity.
A long-time climate change sceptic, the President wants to open the Amazon for commercial activity and has been dismissive of environmentalist's concerns.
But Bolsonaro fired back, accusing NGOs of starting the fires themselves in an effort to undermine him – though he added that he had no evidence to back up the claim. He later said that the government lacks the resources to fight the fires.
The President also said that a tweet from Emmanuel Macron's, France's President, calling for the blazes to be discussed at the G-7 " evokes a colonialist mentality".
Why have the fires caused a social media storm?
This week has seen an outpouring of social media posts decrying the forest fires – many of them using the hashtag #PrayforAmazonas.
But some of the most viral posts have been shown to be unwittingly misleading – either because they include photos that are years old, or images taken were in other parts of the world.
International leaders have commented on the blazes Mr Macron. He tweeted that the situation is an "international crisis" as "our house is burning" and said the emergency should be top of the agenda when members of the G-7 meet this weekend.
But the image used by Mr Macron is at least 16 years old – taken by a National Geographic photojournalist, Loren McIntyre, who died in 2003.
Other celebrities – including Madonna, Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Novak Djokovic and Lewis Hamilton – have also shared images that do not depict the current crisis.
Is this just Brazil's problem?
In Brazil the worst-affected regions are in the north and Amazonas, the country's largest state, has declared a state of emergency.
But it is not the only country in the Amazon basin – which spans 7.4 million square kilometers – which has seen a high number of fires so far this year.
Bolivia has seen a 114 per cent increase in blazes in the first eight months of this year, compared to the same period in 2018.
The Bolivian authorities have warned that 70 per cent of the region Santa Cruz – where a quarter of the county's population lives – is under "extreme risk" from the forest fires.
Venezuela has also seen more than 26,000 fires – a 19 per cent rise since last year.
Although other countries have seen a much smaller number of blazes, Peru, Guyana, Suriname and French Guyana have recorded more than a 100 per cent increase this year.
And the Amazon is not the only region which has been battling enormous wildfires this summer – Russia declared a state of emergency in June as wildfires raged across Siberia, with unprecedented outbreaks in the Arctic releasing more than 120 million tonnes of CO2 in just two months.
What do the fires mean for climate change?
The Amazon's forest fires have emitted huge plumes of smoke, with the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (Cams) reporting that the fumes have travelling as far as the Atlantic coast.
Cams added that the blazes have released the equivalent of 228 megatonnes of CO2 so far this year – the highest level since 2010.
The Amazon is widely regarded as critical to help slow the pace of climate change, with the vast rainforest absorbing millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions every year.
But when these trees are cut of burned the carbon they have been holding is released, and the forests capacity to absorb more CO2 emissions is reduced.
Adriane Muelbert, an ecologist who’s studied how Amazon deforestation plays a role in climate change, told National Geographic:
"It's a tragedy... a crime against the planet, and a crime against humankind."
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security
This article was written by Global Health Security Correspondent and Sarah Newey from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].