Choking on smoke: The growing curse of Indonesia's wildfires

A war of words has erupted in Southeast Asia as rampaging fires and choking smoke plumes stoke regional tensions between Indonesia and its neighbors. 

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Dense smoke from agricultural fires in Indonesia have forced flight cancellations and school closures across the region, as diplomatic tensions heat up.

Singapore has slammed "shocking" statements from Indonesian officials who made light of the crisis.  In return, Indonesia accused Singapore of being "childish".

Dramas over choking smoke have become an annual soap opera in Southeast Asia as Indonesia continues to raze its forests.

Singapore is now taking legal action against major corporations, including the massive pulp producer Asia Pulp & Paper, that are regarded as key drivers of forest and peatland loss in nearby Sumatra, Indonesia.

In response, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said the recurring fires and smoke were a long-term problem and would require time to be solved.

Fires are used as a quick and cheap way to clear forests and peatlands, with massive forest clearing underway on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.  Native forests are being destroyed for oil palm and pulp plantations, and for slash-and-burn farming.

Since 1997, mega-fires have become a virtually annual event each dry season.  A strong El Niño drought this year -- called "Godzilla" by some -- is increasing rainfall deficits across Indonesia and elsewhere in the western Pacific region.

The fires and smoke are rapidly worsening.  In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, air quality has hit hazardous levels, tens of thousands have suffered respiratory illnesses, numerous flights have been cancelled, and schools have been closed.

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Last week, Singapore's air pollution index hit hazardous levels, prompting officials to close all schools and distribute protective face masks.  Schools were also closed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Satellites detected more than 2,000 fire "hotspots" last week in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

As fires increase, officials in neighboring countries are growing increasingly frustrated.  Singapore has arrested seven corporate officials and suspended the business licenses of four corporations that are headquartered there.

Although many fires are started by small-scale farmers, large corporations are also responsible for burning both directly and indirectly.  By building new roads and exploiting large areas of native forest, corporations open up many areas to new human pressures.

Indonesia could and should enforce a major fire ban, but it would require a concerted effort on the part of the Widodo government.  Widespread corruption in the region is hindering efforts to enforce existing restrictions on fires and forest clearance.

Until the raging fires and smoke are brought under control, expect more hot words from Indonesia's increasingly frustrated neighbors.

 

Will 'Godzilla' mega-drought cause global crisis?

Will this year’s El Niño drought turn into an eco-catastrophe?  In an article published today, ALERT's Susan and Bill Laurance say there are lots of danger signs already:

- because of its exceptional intensity, NASA experts have already labeled this drought "Godzilla", arguing it could be the strongest El Niño in living memory

- previous mega-droughts driven by El Niño have degraded large expanses of the Amazon, with a single fire consuming over three million hectares of drought-choked rainforest, farmlands, and indigenous territories in 1997-98

- fires spurred by past mega-droughts have rampaged across Indonesia and burned huge expanses of Borneo

- in New Guinea, the frequency of wildfires has already risen dramatically in recent months, currently running at about triple the rate of previous years

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea  (Philip Shearman)

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea (Philip Shearman)

- worldwide, seven of the ten hottest years on record occurred during or immediately after an El Niño year

- Australia's Daintree Drought Experiment suggests that severe droughts could potentially devastate the region's rainforests

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly  (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

- rapidly expanding land-use changes, such as habitat fragmentation and logging, are making ecosystems far more vulnerable to droughts and fire

- as new roads proliferate almost everywhere, so do the number of human-caused ignition sources, greatly increasing fire risk

The article on the "Godzilla drought" -- which you can access here -- argues that we must take urgent action if we're to avoid battling a fire-breathing monster.

 

Logging sharply increases fire risk for endangered forests

The Mountain Ash forests of southeastern Australia are renowned for supporting the world's tallest flowering plants.  Sadly, clear-cut logging and fierce fires have devastated these once-magnificent forests, with just a tiny fraction of the original old-growth forest remaining.  Now a new study shows that logged forests are far more likely to burn than those that have never been logged.

Razed forests...

Razed forests...

The study, led by Chris Taylor and renowned forest-expert David Lindenmayer, was based on careful statistical analysis of past fire and logging histories.  It found that younger forests -- those logged 7-36 years previously -- were far more likely to suffer intense fires during dry conditions.

Logged forests, they found, had an altered structure and flammable slash in the understory, which made the forests much more vulnerable to intense fires.

The intense fires have a huge impact on native wildlife, particularly the endangered Leadbeater's Possum, which requires mature forest for survival.  Such mega-fires have also killed hundreds of people and destroyed thousands of homes and private properties in southeastern Australia. 

The authors argue that current logging is creating a long-term legacy, making the small patches of surviving old-growth forest much more vulnerable to devastating fires in the future. 

Halting industrial logging, they argue, is the only solution for the endangered Mountain Ash forests.

Fire alert: Could 2014 be 'the year from hell'?

When it comes to wildfires, 2014 might be a doozy.

Where there's smoke...  forest burning in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

Where there's smoke...  forest burning in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

ALERT member Tom Struhsaker has passed along a recent news report about the intense smoke now blanketing much of Southeast Asia, thanks in large part to rampant forest burning in Sumatra.  This is doubly frightening given that rainfall in Sumatra has been normal in recent months.

In Sumatra, over 50,000 people have had to be treated for respiratory distress.  And so far more than 200 Malaysian schools have had to be closed because of the acrid smoke.

But things could get a lot worse.  Climate scientists have been agog at recent temperature readings in the Pacific Ocean, which have been 6 degrees Celsius higher than normal

Such high temperatures are a harbinger of El Niño events--and such high readings suggest we might be heading for a mega-Niño.  

That's a big worry, because El Niños can cause major droughts and monsoon failure in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as parts of the Amazon. 

Climatologists say we could suffer a severe drought like that in 1997-98, when wildfires razed large expanses of Borneo and Sumatra and the Amazon.  

Forewarned is forearmed.  Governments in the Asia-Pacific region and Amazon need to be ready to impose and enforce burning bans across vulnerable areas. 

Without such bans, 2014 might be the year from hell--both for people and forests.

 

ALERT press release: Roads imperil wilderness

To coincide with the International Day of Forests, ALERT today issued a press release entitled "Roads imperil world's last wildernesses".

Roads versus nature... Deforestation near Acre, Brazil

Roads versus nature... Deforestation near Acre, Brazil

Our press release partially echoes a recent press statement by RoadFree, which also highlights the often-devastating impacts of new roads on wilderness areas (see blog below).

There is a growing consensus among scientists that unbridled road expansion is one of the biggest proximate causes of environmental degradation globally