Could Climate Change Worsen Southeast Asia’s Forest Fires?

Could Climate Change Worsen Southeast Asia’s Forest Fires?

22 June 2013

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South East Asia — Southeast Asia could have to brace for more forest fires and clouds of smoke if climate change takes hold, a World Bank expert suggests.

As temperatures climb, some parts of Southeast Asia will likely flood with rising sea levels while others face drought and heat waves. Drier jungles and peatlands in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere could trigger more fires and spread more choking smoke across the region in the years to come.

“Tropical forests, including peat forests, are quite sensitive to temperature changes, so long dry seasons and higher temperatures can severely damage a healthy forest, which leaves it more vulnerable,” said Werner L. Kornexl, a Jakarta-based environmental specialist at the World Bank. “Moist forests are fire resistant but damaged or degraded forests are not so it can well be that higher temperatures will also increase the haze.”

The World Bank this week released a report on how global warming could affect Southeast Asia and other regions. While the report entitled “Turn down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts and the Case for Resilience” didn’t touch on the haze problem directly, a possible rise in temperatures could indirectly worsen the region’s smoke problems, experts say.

“Higher temperatures and more pronounced dry periods are both predicted for parts of Indonesia and Southeast Asia at large,” J. Jackson Ewing, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said in a commentary Thursday. “If these conditions become more frequent in haze-producing regions the occurrence and magnitude of haze events will likely increase.”

The World Bank predicted that global warming would cause sea levels to rise by 50 centimeters above current levels by 2060 and a full meter by 2090, an increase in intense tropical cyclones and saltwater flowing further inland. The net effect could be a big hit on agriculture and aquaculture productivity in coastal areas.

“Across Southeast Asia rural livelihoods are faced with mounting pressures as sea levels rise, tropical cyclones increase in intensity and important marine ecosystem services are lost as warming approaches [a rise by] 4 degrees Celsius,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said in the report. “We are concerned that unless the world takes bold action now, a disastrously warming planet threatens to put prosperity out of reach of millions and roll back decades of development.”

Meanwhile, all the smoke could possible accelerate the rate of global warming as it represents tons of carbon dioxide that used to be locked up in jungle trees and peat which has now been released into the atmosphere.

“Peat area burning is the number one CO2 emission in Indonesia and is therefore contributing even more to global warming,” said Mr. Kornexl. “It’s a vicious circle.”

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