Amazon rainforest fires melting glaciers more than 1,250 miles away, research finds

Scientists warn increase in deforestation could lead to further melting

Conrad Duncan
Thursday 28 November 2019 17:03 GMT
Drone footage shows recently deforested land in the Amazon

Fires in the Amazon rainforest are melting glaciers in the Andes more than 1,000 miles away, according to new research.

A study has found soot from fires in the jungles of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia has increased melting in the Andes by up to 14 per cent a year.

The process is caused by the main wind direction between August and October, when most fires occur, during which soot is blown towards the northern area of the mountain ranges where it lands as snow.

Dr Newton de Magalhaes Neto, the study’s lead author, explained there is “the potential to increase glacier melting as snow that is darkened by black carbon or dust particles [that] reflect less light”.

A separate study by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in 2016 found some areas covered by glaciers in the Andes have nearly halved since the 1970s.

The new study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, is based on a computer model of the burning of southwestern Amazonia.

Dr Neto, a biologist at Rio de Janeiro State University, used data on wildfires between 2000 and 2016, alongside data on the movement of smoke plumes, rain and snowfall, and glacier melting.

Researchers investigated the reduction in the “albedo effect”, whereby light surfaces reflect more heat than dark, due to the presence of black carbon and dust in snow.

High concentrations of dust, around 100 ppm (parts per million), increased annual melting by 11 to 13 per cent – with melting rising to 12 to 14 per cent in the presence of black carbon.

“The findings suggest the impact of Amazon biomass burning depends on the dust content in snow,” Dr Neto said.

The increase in wildfires in the Amazon rainforest is believed to have been mainly caused by people setting light to trees to clear space for agriculture.

Dr Neto has warned that such fires could increase in the future.

“Pressure related to global food demand may result in further expansion of Brazilian agriculture and deforestation,” he said.

“This would result in enhanced black carbon and CO2 emissions that may impact Andean glaciers.”

The study is the first analysis of the effects of tree burning on the tropical Andean glaciers of South America.

Dr Neto added: “Biomass burning over southwestern Amazonia cannot be considered a regional issue to be faced but instead has social implications at the continental scale, making the use of water by several Andean communities a vulnerability.”

Although wildfires often occur in the dry season in Brazil, preliminary estimates from satellite data have shown deforestation rose almost 90 per cent in June and by 280 per cent in July compared with the same months last year.

Environmental groups have blamed the fires on Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, relaxing policies to allow swathes of forest to be cleared for farming and mining.

More than a football pitch worth of Amazon forest is wiped out every minute, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

Additional reporting by SWNS

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