In smoke-choked Asia, fires beget more fires

Southeast Asia is accustomed to intense smoke and haze from forest burning, but in June 2013 air pollution reached the highest level ever recorded -- hitting life-threatening levels in Singapore, for instance.  This alone was scary enough, but there is an even more frightening side to the story.

Scary new fire dynamic... (photo by William Laurance)

Unlike virtually all previous mega-fire events in the region, the June 2013 fires didn't occur during a drought.  That is unprecedented

Even in a year with normal rains, fires -- especially in central Sumatra, where forests are being devastated for oil palm, pulpwood plantations, and slash-and-burn farming -- raged out of control.

New research by David Gaveau and colleagues -- which you can download free here -- has uncovered an alarming explanation for this new fire dynamic. 

Previous degradation and burning of forests is making them hyper-vulnerable to new fires, even during relatively wet conditions.

Gaveau surveyed the aftermath of the Sumatra burning and found that much of it was caused by slash-and-burn farmers.  And most of the burned land was degraded forest or peat-swamp that had already been burned once before. 

The previous burning left behind dead and dying trees, stumps, and slash that became highly flammable with just a few days of dry weather -- unlike an intact rainforest, which only becomes flammable after a prolonged and intense drought.

Gaveau calls these degraded areas "forest cemeteries" -- places where damaged, regenerating forests become prone to a final, fiery death -- and spewing out massive quantities of greenhouse gases in the process.

Central Sumatra has become a poster-child for forest devastation, and now this new research shows that its damaged forests are far more prone to killer fires -- fires that can also have a lethal impact on human populations living in the region.

 

Eco-crisis: The devastation of Borneo's forests

Warning: Do not look at this map if you don't want to feel depressed. 

The image shows how much of Borneo's biodiversity-rich forests have been destroyed or degraded in the last four decades -- and it's enough to ruin anybody's breakfast.

Trouble for orangutans and lots of other species  (from Mongabay)

Trouble for orangutans and lots of other species (from Mongabay)

From 1973 to 2010, the tropical rainforests of Borneo have been razed twice as fast as those elsewhere on the planet, according to a freely available study that just appeared in PLoS One.

In the paper, David Gaveau, Sean Sloan, and colleagues analyzed Landsat imagery to see how much of Borneo's mega-diversity forests have been cleared, burned, or degraded by industrial logging. 

It's not a pretty picture -- as also detailed here in the leading environmental website Mongabay.

In 1973, more than three-quarters of Borneo was blanketed by native forest, much of which was undisturbed or little disturbed, according to the study.

By 2010 nearly 17 million hectares of the forest -- an area larger than England, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined -- had vanished.

Echoing an earlier study that spanned all of Indonesia, industrial logging, oil palm, and wood-pulp plantations were apparently the biggest culprits, along with slash-and-burn farming.

Increasingly, large expanses of Borneo are dominated by selectively logged native forests.  As highlighted previously here at ALERT, these forests still retain considerable biodiversity and carbon, but are intensely vulnerable to being cleared or burned.

The challenge at hand for Borneo is clear, the study concludes.

It's vital to slow forest destruction, by safeguarding existing protected areas and especially by defending the selectively logged forests that now increasingly dominate the island.

 

Why are Indonesia's forests so imperiled?

No nation on Earth is losing forest faster than Indonesia--the magical land of over 13,000 islands.  But what is causing all that deforestation?

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

Sinan Abood, ALERT member Lian Pin Koh, and their colleagues assessed the specific drivers of forest loss in Indonesia, between 2000 and 2010.  The picture that emerged has some surprises.

For one thing, the biggest driver of forest loss wasn't oil palm, but rather industrial pulpwood plantations.  Mega-corporations such as Asia Pulp & Paper and APRIL have cleared vast expanses of rainforest and peat-swamp forest for such plantations, especially in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

Second on the list was industrial logging.  This indicates that logged forests in Indonesia, which still harbor a great deal of biodiversity (see this blog), are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.

Oil palm, while still important, was actually number three on the list of industrial forest destroyers. 

Notably, the authors surmised that over half of all deforestation was caused by actors other than the big three above--including slash-and-burn farming, legal and illegal mining, and other causes.

The authors conclude that vast expanses of Indonesia's forest have been allocated to industrial concessions, especially logging concessions, where they are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.  Some of the greatest conservation opportunities in Asia revolve around finding ways to protect these imperiled industrial forests