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‘Fire Begets More Fires’: Rainforests Slip Into Cycle of Destruction


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‘Fire Begets More Fires’: Rainforests Slip Into Cycle of Destruction

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fire-begets-more-fires-rainforests-slip-into-cycle-of-destruction-11571153534?mod=hp_lead_pos8

Research in recent years has shown that the very nature of rainforests—from Southeast Asia to the Amazon—is changing as a result of extensive clearing for farms, pastureland and other use, making them much more vulnerable to further destruction.

“All the mechanisms essentially feed into a positive feedback loop,” said William Laurance, a research professor at James Cook University in Australia. “More fire begets more fires, more degradation begets more degradation.”

Deforested land dries out quickly in the sun and wind. Fires, both naturally occurring and man-made, can spread more easily from this degraded landscape into adjoining forest.

How Rainforests Collapse

Deforestation in tropical forests decreases rainfall, making the area drier and more vulnerable to fires.

When parts of the rainforest are destroyed, this process is disrupted. There is less rainfall, longer dry periods and more fires.

Moisture from the forest is released into the

atmosphere, generating rainfall.

Moisture from the forest is

released into the atmosphere,

generating rainfall.

When parts of the rainforest are destroyed, this process is disrupted. There is less rainfall, longer dry periods and more fires.

Moisture from the forest is released into

the atmosphere, generating rainfall.

When parts of the rainforest are destroyed, this process is disrupted. There is less rainfall, longer dry periods and more fires.

Moisture from the forest is released into

the atmosphere, generating rainfall.

When parts of the rainforest are destroyed,

this process is disrupted. There is less rainfall, longer dry periods and more fires.

There is another problem too. Clearing foliage reduces evapotranspiration, the process by which the forest releases water vapor into the atmosphere—which accounts for around a third of the rainfall in a rainforest like the Amazon, according to

Dominick Spracklen,

a professor at the University of Leeds who studies the link between rainforest and rainfall.

The reduction in water vapor decreases rainfall and extends dry seasons, making the forest more vulnerable to fire—and the fires more difficult to control. Last year,

Thomas Lovejoy,

a professor at George Mason University, and

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Carlos Nobre,

a Brazilian scientist, wrote in an editorial in academic journal Science Advances that parts of the Amazon system could hit a tipping point and “flip to non-forest ecosystems” when deforestation reaches around 20% to 25%, given the added challenge of climate change.

Around 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost over the past half-century, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Forest cleared for oil-palm plantations in Aceh province on the Indonesia island of Sumatra in July.


Photo:

hotli simanjuntak/epa/Shutterstock

Indonesia’s rainforests, which are smaller than the Amazon, are already greatly diminished. Industrial agriculture expanded aggressively over the past few decades, making the country the world’s largest producer of palm oil. There is evidence that rainforest destruction has already changed weather patterns extensively.

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What measures can countries take to better protect their forests against fires? Join the conversation below.

Researchers found that by 2010, 70% of forest area on the Indonesian island of Sumatra had been converted for plantations and other purposes. Temperatures in the island’s Jambi province were nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher in 2015 than 2000, a study found—an increase researchers linked to heavy deforestation there. Forest fires were once rare in heavily forested parts of the island, such as Riau, near Singapore, but in recent years have occurred almost annually, say scientists.

On the nearby island of Borneo, mainly controlled by Indonesia and Malaysia, forestland declined by 30% in less than four decades leading up to 2010, making parts of the island hotter and more susceptible to fires. A recent study found that rainfall there had decreased by around 20% since the 1950s, and that deforested areas in the lowlands were around 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than forested areas.

Scientists say climatic changes like these could have contributed to this year’s fires. A preliminary analysis by

David Gaveau,

a scientist who is an associate at Indonesia’s Center for International Forestry Research, found that many were started on degraded former forest land, now covered by fern and scrub, and spread from those dry areas into the rainforest.

“These fires today are legacy of past peat swamp forest destruction,” said Mr. Gaveau. “In a sense, you could say that tipping point has been reached.”

Concerns about Southeast Asia’s forests have spurred global campaigns against palm oil, found in products from soap and candy to biofuels and mainly produced in Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia. A European Union regulation published this year will phase out subsidies to palm-oil-derived fuels that aren’t certified as sustainable, beginning in 2024.

An orangutan in the haze from forest fires on the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo last month.


Photo:

fully handoko/EPA/Shutterstock

The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia have spoken out against the regulation, with Malaysia saying it will effectively ban palm-oil biofuel in the EU.

Jakarta says it is taking steps to improve forest conditions. In 2016 the government launched programs to restore peat swamp forests, which are naturally occurring waterlogged forests with spongy peat soil.

But that is a long, complex and costly process. The swamp forests of Borneo are crisscrossed by drainage canals to make it easier to burn and clear for agriculture. To restore their swampy nature requires backfilling the canals with compacted peat soil.

Nazir Foead,

the head of Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency, said he was summoned to a meeting in August by the country’s president, Joko Widodo. The leader said local officials who failed to stop fires would be replaced.

Mr. Foead said Mr. Widodo’s concerns were justified, but that during dry seasons as intense as the current one, it was a huge task to prevent fires from sparking and spreading.

“We fully realize that the weather can get more and more extreme and that the forest could be more and more vulnerable to fires,” he said.

The picture for the Amazon and the Congo Basin rainforests could be yet more dire. Indonesia’s rainforests are on islands and closer to the ocean than their counterparts in South America and Africa, which means they are less reliant on rainfall from evaporated forest moisture.

“You can say it’s the canary in the coal mine,” said Douglas Sheil, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. “If this is happening in Borneo, that’s scary.”

At the U.N General Assembly, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro plans to address concerns about deforestation, the Amazon fires and economic development in his country. WSJ’s Jason Bellini previewed the topics with Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles. Photo: Getty

Write to Jon Emont at jonathan.emont@wsj.com

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