Game changer: NASA data tool could revolutionize Amazon fire analysis

15 September 2020

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AMAZON – With more than 1,000 major fires already detected this year across the Amazon, impacting the rainforest and Indigenous and traditional communities, scientists are offering a sliver of hope to land managers seeking to curb future fires as new satellite data technologies come online.

For the last month, a single massive wildfire has burned in the Amazon understory, claiming as much of 24,994 hectares (61,762 acres) of pristine rainforest in an area sandwiched between the Jamanxim National Forest and the Baú Indigenous Territory in Pará state, Brazil — both of which are protected areas long subjected to invasions by land grabbers who regularly use fire as a tool to clear and steal public land.

Just this one fire will send almost 3 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere over the coming years as the charred trees die off and decompose, according to new data from a recently launched NASA Amazon fire tool. That’s the equivalent in emissions of 700,000 cars driven for one year.

But here’s the silver lining: as recently as last year, scientists couldn’t have known all of this. Amazon fires have in the past typically been tracked by counting hotspots, which can’t account for the number or size of actual fires, the precise area impacted, carbon emissions, or the kind of fire. While some systems combine hotspot data with aerosol data and other information, none could offer all this information automatically in near real time — until now.

NASA breakthrough

The new Amazon Dashboard fire monitoring tool, initiated August 19 by NASA, boasts some major advances over the way fires were monitored in the past. The platform utilizes automated data collection and computer analysis to identify the number of significant fires burning in the Amazon (instead of just hotspots), what type of fires are burning, and how many new fires start each day. Carbon emissions are counted too.

“As valuable as active fire information is to track monthly or yearly differences, it’s an incomplete picture of what is going on,” Douglas Morton, the chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center responsible for the new tool, told Mongabay.

“Our team wanted to be able to provide more context about the types of fires burning, and the size and growth of those fires over time. Those are critical attributes in terms of the potential to suppress those fires in remote locations.” The new system differentiates fires burning in deforested areas (usually set illegally to convert forest to agricultural land), those burning in the rainforest understory, grassland blazes, and fires set by subsistence farmers annually to clear existing fields.

Understory forest fires — one of the most destructive types of Amazon fire — have gone almost entirely undetected in previous years, as satellites were unable to “see” them. With flames often less than a meter high, understory forest fires seep into dense foliage, burning a trail across the forest floor, often hidden completely by tree canopies towering 40 to 50 meters overhead.

Now, using more sensitive infrared data from nighttime overpasses by the Suomi NPP and NOAA-20 satellites, NASA can now spot these destructive wildfires in near real time.

NASA’s quickly accessible and pinpointed data can help land managers identify and suppress forest fires in remote locations before they get too big, while also helping expose perpetrators of large-scale arson. The filtering out of fire used on small-scale family farms and in traditional communities allows enforcement operations to focus exclusively on fighting large-scale criminal deforestation networks, and in preventing and combatting forest fires in high-risk areas.

“It’s groundbreaking. A revolution in our field. We could stop these forest fires and respond quickly,” said Erika Berenguer, a biologist and Amazon expert at Oxford University. “We can [now] separate fires coming from deforestation and agriculture from forest fires, which are much more difficult to detect. In truth, we don’t know how much fire escapes [from newly deforested areas or fields] into the forest, but it’s a considerable proportion.”

NASA’s new fire detection tool comes at a critical time. Finding solutions has never been more urgent, as the Amazon rainforest moves toward a predicted rainforest-to-savanna tipping point — succumbing to climate change induced drought, rampant deforestation, and record breaking annual fires occurring under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a cheerleader for agribusiness and industrial mining interests in the Amazon region.

Mongabay has also created its own fire dashboard based on MAAP data, which is regularly updated for use in our stories:

Data could help curb future forest fires

Devastating scenes from last year’s Amazon fires shook the world.

But this year’s blazes are already worse than those in 2019, though their harm has been cloaked by the COVID-19 pandemic which has kept media teams out of the remote Amazon.

That’s why, researchers say, the new NASA system couldn’t have come at a better time. “This year, the Amazon has had more forest fires than last year. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the total number of hot pixels,” said Morton. “Not all fire detections are of equal importance.”

Fires in recently deforested areas, along with understory forest fires, raise the greatest concern among scientists, as they emit the most carbon and cause the most damage to the rainforest and biodiversity.

Liana Anderson, a researcher at the Brazilian Centre for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN), is working with her team on quantifying the impacts of fire in the Amazon. A better understanding of the real cost of Amazon fires, she says, could inform annual budget planning for firefighting and prevention. “In this moment of crisis, we need incentives for science to support decision making and the issues that affect society.”

Estimates based on data from 2008 to 2012 in the Brazilian state of Acre suggest that damage from fires may total 7% of the Amazon’s GDP. “Fire damages infrastructure, such as fencing between farms, electric transmission and roads. Smoke damages health which has a cost. There are also losses to agricultural production, and in rarer cases, [fire] can even interrupt air traffic,” said Anderson. The new NASA monitoring tool could help with these financial damage estimates — economically justifying improved fire control to Brazil’s federal and state governments.

Understory forest fires may start on farms or in pastures, but can escape into standing forest. Fire-damaged trees eventually die, providing fuel and making the forest more vulnerable to future fires. Image by Sérgio Vale/Amazônia Real.

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