The Amazon is burning, and here's why it's not just Brazil's problem

August 21, 2019, 5:33 p.m.
overshot of a forest fire in the Amazon rainforest
Photo: Raphael Alves/Getty Images

It's difficult to keep track of all the climate crises, but the current fires in the Amazon rainforest should have everyone's attention. The world's largest rainforest, spanning nine nations, is vital for storing carbon and slowing down global warming. For the past few weeks, it has experienced an unprecedented level of burning.

Brazil’s space research center, INPE, reported this week that its satellite data showed a record number of fires raging this year — more than 70,000 of them. This disturbing news comes just weeks after Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, fired the director of the center for releasing reports that showed deforestation was up 88% compared to a year ago.

Bolsonaro was elected in January on a platform that promised to increase Brazil's economy by developing the Amazon for potential economic opportunities. Scientists and critics say his policies advocate development over conservation, with the Amazon suffering the brunt of those decisions. According to the INPE, more than 1.5 soccer fields of rainforest are being destroyed every minute.

Often considered "the Earth's lungs" because it produces around 20% of the planet's oxygen, the rainforests are at the forefront of climate change. The world's largest ecosystem is also home to more plant and animal species than any other place on the planet. Scientists fear this deforestation surge is nearing a tipping point, with the release of tremendous quantities of planet-warming greenhouse gases creating a feedback loop in which rising temperatures lead to a drier Earth.

View of smoke and fires in several states in Brazil This is a natural-color image, taken on Aug. 20, 2019, shows smoke and fires in several states within Brazil. Though a lot of media attention has been focused on the files in recent weeks, NASA says it's 'not unusual to see fires in Brazil at this time of year due to high temperatures and low humidity. Time will tell if this year is a record breaking or just within normal limits.' (Photo: NASA/NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS))

On social media, #PrayersforAmazonia has been trending, with many questioning why the world's most important ecosystem is getting so little attention worldwide. Photos from São Paolo, Brazil's largest city, show the sky turning dark from smoke caused by forest fires almost 1,700 miles away. The Brazlian state of Amazonas has also declared a state of emergency due to the rising number of fires.

Though the cause of the fires has not been determined, many fear Bolsonaro has been dismissive of the severity of the situation. When asked about the spread of fires, he brushed off concerns, telling Reuters, "I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada." Queimada refers to the time of year when farmers use fire to clear land.

However, the INPE rejected that reasoning, stating, "There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average."

If this news leaves you angry, don't feel powerless. Fast Company offers a good list of ways you can help the Amazon through these fires and beyond.