Amazon Rainforest, Known as 'The Planet's Lungs,' Has Been Burning at a Record Rate for Weeks

If the Amazon reaches "a point of no return," it could begin emitting carbon, "the major driver for global climate change"

Fires in the Amazon rainforest
Fires in the Amazon rainforest from space. Photo: NASA

Fires have been raging at a record rate in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest for weeks, threatening wildlife and Earth’s oxygen in a disaster that activists say could drive further climate change.

There have been 72,843 fires in Brazil this year (with more than half in its Amazon region), and satellite images have spotted 9,507 new forest fires in the county — mostly in the Amazon basin — since Thursday, according to CNN and Reuters, both citing Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The Amazon, known as “the planet’s lungs,” produces 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen and is a key factor in combating climate change, CNN notes.

The impact of the smoke can be felt in São Paulo, even though it’s more than 1,700 miles away from the rainforest, CNN reported.

“Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it’s smoke from the fires burning *thousands* of kilometers away, in Rondônia or Paraguay,” journalist Shannon Sims tweeted on Monday. “Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke(!). SOS.”

Overcast and dark sky in Brazil
Sky filled with smoke in São Paulo. Agencia Estado via AP

Photos and videos shared on social media showed huge plumes of smoke coming from the forest, flames and dark skies as a result of the blazes. A map from the European Union’s satellite program, Copernicus, showed smoke covering a large portion of the country and moving into nearby countries.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical forest, and the fires this year represent an 83 percent increase over the same period of 2018, Reuters reported.

Officials with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) have said humans, dry weather and natural factors are to blame for the uptick in blazes.

“There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” INPE researcher Alberto Setzer said, according to Reuters. “The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.”

Organizers with the World Wildlife Fund have said that if the Amazon reaches “a point of no return,” it could begin emitting carbon, which is “the major driver for global climate change.”

Activists have blamed Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro for the fires, noting that the surge of fires began when he took office in January, Reuters reported.

Bolsonaro vowed to explore the Amazon’s economic potential and condemned deforestation warnings that could interfere with trade negotiations.

He dismissed criticism, holding that farmers use fire to clear land this time of year. Bolsonaro famously fired INPE leader Ricardo Galvão after Galvão spoke out about high deforestation rates. Bolsonaro said then that the findings were inaccurate, and the president appears to be taking a similar stance in the wake of news of the fires.

“I am waiting for the next set of numbers, that will not be made up numbers. If they are alarming, I will take notice of them in front of you,” he told reporters, according to Reuters.

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