According to the American Lung Association, smoking is the main cause of lung cancer. The Amazon rain forest has been described as the "lungs" of planet Earth because it produces 20% of the oxygen supply we humans and other animals need to live. And it has been smoking for a long time!
I went looking for data on wildfires in the Amazon, and it turns out to be very hard to nail down. One source, NBC News, says Brazil has had more than 140,000 observed fires so far in 2019 and that at this point last year the number was about 75,000. That's nearly a 100% increase in the number of fires.
The New York Times reported that Brazil's own National Institute for Space Research (INPE) detected 39,194 fires this year which represents a 77% increase from the same period in 2018.
Whatever the actual number of wildfires in the Amazon is, it is growing. But the trend is not smoothly increasing. 2016 saw nearly as many fires as 2019, due mostly to that year's El Niño, while the numbers in 2017 and 2018 were down.
Yet not only is the number of fires greater this year, but the size of the blazes is much bigger. The INPE reported in July that 4.6 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon had been consumed by fire from January to July 2019. This is a 62% increase over the same period last year. For the first time smoke from the fires is darkening the skies in São Paulo.
Here in Northern California, we are accustomed to a yearly fire season. But historically a yearly fire season in the Amazon Rainforest is about as likely as a hurricane season in Antarctica. Wildfires are not supposed to happen in rainforests.
So what's causing them? Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, wants to turn the Amazon into industrial farms -- threatening wildlife, indigenous peoples, and our chances of ever slowing climate change. Brazilian landowners are clearing large areas of rainforest for agriculture, cattle grazing, and commercial development. Loggers come in and take what they want, and the rest is deliberately burned. The Amazon is on fire and it's no accident.
In the early 2000s the number of manmade fires was higher, but it was then that the Brazilian government became environmentally conscious and passed laws protective of the environment, indigenous peoples, and the millions of species of plants and animals in the Amazon Basin. But since Bolsonaro took office in January of this year, enforcement of those laws has been lax. Also, the rhetoric from the administration has encouraged farmers to slash and burn in protected areas with impunity.
Bolsonaro claims other countries are trying to make his country a colony again because France, Ireland and Finland are threatening to scrap a trade agreement, and Germany and Norway are stopping contributions to an aid fund.
Rainforests breathe in carbon dioxide, sequestering it. Thus they are essential allies in the fight against climate change. They breathe out oxygen. Thus they are essential for oxygen-breathing life forms on this planet. They also produce water vapor through aspiration. The water vapor returns as much needed rain (hence the term rainforest) in other areas. There are about 390 billion trees in the Amazon which represents over half of the planet's remaining rainforests. A tenth of the 8.7 million species of life on Earth reside in the Amazon.
The Amazon rainforest is key to keeping the Earth a habitable planet for mankind. Burning it to create farmland will be pointless if there are no humans around to eat the food.
In order for life on Earth to prosper, we really need to help the Amazon quit smoking!