You would certainly be forgiven for not the thinking of the Amazon basin as a hot spot for forest fires owing to torrential rainfall, rain-forest and, well, a fairly large river that is the world’s biggest. However, the El Nino conditions of 2015 that have carried through to this year saw a serious decrease in rainfall, prompting the worry over the potential for fires.

Extended El Nino Could Mean Forest Fire Danger In Amazon Basin
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Amazon threaten like many other parts of the world from El Nino

According to satellite data from NASA, coming into the Amazon’s dry season, El Nino was responsible for the lowest amount of rainfall in the Amazon region. Drought has brought massive fires to the Amazon in 2005 an 2010 and it looks like the danger is even higher this year for forest fires according to Doug Morton, an expert on Earth science at NASA.

Most of the danger is limited to the southern Amazon region said Morton.

“Severe drought conditions at the start of the dry season set the stage for extreme fire risk in 2016 across the southern Amazon,” Morton said.

The system that was developed to judge the susceptibility to forest fires was developed jointly between NASA and the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Warmer waters in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans owing to El Nino but the Amazon at risk for fires as those conditions limit rainfall.

In addition to looking at overall rainfall, the researchers looked at groundwater levels in the Amazon with data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).

Liana Anderson, a scientist from Brazil’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN) thanked NASA and UCI for the warning so her department can ready themselves for the possibilities of massive fires while the country hosts the Olympics this summer.

Worst year in recent memory for risk

While 2005 and 2010 were massive drought years, all signs suggest that this year is considerably worse and threatens the region that is already losing huge swaths of land to planned burns that are often made for cattle raising despite climate scientists suggestions that the Amazon rain-forest is key to scrubbing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In fact, it’s truly a double edged sword as the rain-forest instead of removing carbon dioxide is producing it during the razing of the forests by fire and/or heavy machinery.

The scientists are essentially monitoring the threat in “real time” as the Terra satellite’s Moderate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument, and the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) give them new data every hour and allow them to put it together multiple times each day.

Jim Randerson, a scientist from UCI, points out that with low underground water levels in the Amazon, millions of trees are feeling the stress and as a result are lowering the humidity of the region, which of course raises the threat of fires growing out of control.

“When trees have less moisture to draw upon at the beginning of the dry season, they become more vulnerable to fire, and evaporate less water into the atmosphere,” he said. “This puts millions of trees under stress and lowers humidity across the region, allowing fires to grow bigger than they normally would.”

While fire is clearly bad for the forest, the smoke is also a danger for those in the area who suffer from respiratory issues like asthma.