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What's happening in the Amazon?

23 August 2019
Rainforest fires "not a natural phenomenon"
Scientists, engineers and anthropology experts from the University of Sydney discuss the inferno that's raging through the Amazon, devastating large swathes of rainforest and increasing CO2 levels.

Brazilian pastoralists burn parts of the Amazon forest to create grazing lands. Photo credit: Pedarilhos/Shutterstock

"The planet is losing an important carbon sink"

Danilo Ignacio de Urzedo is from Sao Paolo, Brazil and has worked in the Amazon as a forester. He is completing his PhD at the University of Sydney's School of Geosciences on the topic of Amazon forest restoration.

“The extreme number of fires burning now is not a natural phenomenon. They are a direct result of mismanagement, underfunding and illegal deforestation, mostly for the cattle industry," said Mr Urzedo.

“The impact of these fires is felt most acutely by the Indigenous communities that rely on Amazonian biodiversity for their livelihoods. But the impact goes much further. Brazil’s cities are choking on the smoke. And deforestation of the Amazon is affecting rainfall across South America. Beyond this, the planet is losing an important carbon sink and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere," he said.

The fire will increase CO2 levels, which is dangerous for human, animal and plant health, says Professor Huang. Photo credit: Pixabay

Fire exacerbating global heating - investment in CO2 conversion needed

Professor Jun Huang is a chemical engineer and expert in CO2 conversion from the University of Sydney’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Sydney Nano.

"Not only has the inferno raging in the Amazon released a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, it has also reduced the rainforest's capacity to convert CO2 back into oxygen, therefore exacerbating global heating even further," said Professor Huang.

"The further the fire advances, the more CO2 will accumulate, which is dangerous for human, animal and plant health. CO2 is heavier than air, so it accumulates at ground level and reduces the very oxygen that we need in order to breathe," he said.

"What is currently taking place in the Amazon only further highlights the urgent need for a rapid investment in CO2 conversion technologies. If we don't combat this threat head on, we will reach a tipping point whereby industrial CO2 emissions heat the planet to a point where fires will burn out of control and there will be no forests left to absorb CO2.”

Smoke from the Amazon fire can be seen from space. Photo credit: NASA/Lynn Jenner

Conservation essential to preventing further fires

Dr Petr Matous is a leading humanitarian and environmental engineer from the University of Sydney’s School of Civil Engineering.

“Large-scale fires in the Amazon rainforest can be linked to ill-conceived infrastructure development projects in the region. There are strong feedback loops between forest fires, development of road infrastructure and deforestation in Amazon, all of which are rapidly increasing under the current president of Brazil although he disputes the scientific evidence," said Dr Matous

"The Amazon used to be known for its extreme resistance to fires thanks to dense and moist tree canopies. But road construction along with insensitive logging has opened the canopy and increased the fuel load on the ground, which in turn allows for intensive fires during dry seasons and El Niño years. Dense fire smoke in the atmosphere also causes more. So, once large fires start more are likely to follow," he said.

"However, something can be done. Destructive forest fires can be reduced by maintaining large continuous blocks of conservation and Indigenous reserves in which logging and harmful infrastructure developments are forbidden. Carbon-offset fund policies can be used to make forest protection economically profitable for local communities."

On Monday, smoke from the Amazon fires plunged Brazil's largest city into darkness. According to the country’s statistics bureau, more than three million São Paulo residents live in poverty. Photo credit: Leandro Mota/Twitter

Disasters like the Amazon fires affect infrastructure 

School of Civil Engineering academic, Dr Ali Hadigheh works in strengthening infrastructure in the context of natural disasters.

"Due to climate change, structures are being affected by increasingly large-scale and devastating natural disasters, costing many lives as well as billions of dollars. In addition, a large number of our existing structures do not satisfy the requirements of contemporary design standards, so during an emergency they may be vulnerable to structural or non-structural damage and thus loss of functionality," he said.

Deforestation in the Amazon as seen from a satellite in 2018. Photo credit: TommoT/Shutterstock

Bolsonaro proponent of mass development at expense of environment

Dr Luis Fernando Angosto-Ferrández is a senior lecturer in the departments of Anthropology and Spanish and Latin American Studies, with expertise in economic anthropology.

“These fires in the rainforest are truly a socioecological drama, but for ruthless advocates of economic growth, they also appear as an opportunity to bring 'development' into the Amazon region," said Dr Angosto-Ferrández.

“Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro declared that his government lacks resources to effectively address the fires that are devastating the Amazonian rainforest. Extinguishing these fires would indeed require vast amounts of resources, but many within Brazil consider that Bolsonaro's government lacks somethings as important as resources to tackle these and prevent future fires: determined political will," he said.

“From the moment he arrived in government, Bolsonaro made clear that his government promotes economic development ahead of conservation or social justice, and Brazil's Amazon basin remains a main target of advocates of that developmentalist orientation. It is not coincidental that the indigenous peoples from the Amazonian region in Brazil have been among the most actively mobilised against the current Brazilian president since he became a serious contender to the main political office in the country."

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