Course:CONS200/2021/Fires in the Brazilian Amazon: Causes, Consequences and Solutions

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The Brazilian Amazon

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest

The Brazilian Amazon, alternatively, the Amazon rainforest, is a large broadleaf tropical rainforest in the Amazon biome that covers most of the Amazon basin of South America[1]. It covers an area of 2,300,000 square miles and comprises about 40% of Brazil's total area[1]. The Amazon rainforest represents over half of the planet's remaining rainforests and is globally recognized as one of the greatest and richest tropical forests in terms of area and biodiversity[2]. This area contains several million species of insects, plants, birds, and other forms of life, many remaining unrecorded[1]. In addition to its high biodiversity, the Amazon rainforest plays an essential role in helping control the earth's carbon cycle, and thus help combat climate change[3]. It stores approximately 100 billion metric tons of carbon in both trees and forest soils, that's more than ten times the annual global emissions from fossil fuels[3].

What are Forest Fires?

Forest fire in the Brazilian Amazon

Forest fires are the burning of tropical, temperature, and boreal forest either by natural fire or man-made fire[4]. These fires can help keep ecosystems healthy, by killing insects and diseases that harm trees[5]. By clearing shrub and underbrush, the fires make way for new plants and shrubs that provide food and habitat for different species[4]. At low intensities, forest fires can also clean up debris and underbrush on the forest floor, add nutrients to the soil, and open up space to let sunlight through to the ground[4]. The sunlight can nourish smaller plants and give larger trees room to grow and flourish[4].

However, forest fires have become a severe threat in the Amazon rainforest, and has caused issues such as forest degradation, soil erosion, climate change (the greenhouse effect), and threats towards human health. In the last 40 years, the Brazilian Amazon has lost more than 18% of its rainforest due to forest fires[6]. These fires are mainly caused by prescribed burning, deforestation, and climate change. Furthermore, the number of fires burning in the Amazon rainforest has spiked dramatically throughout recent years and is predicted to increase unless significant measures are taken to combat this issue[5]. In order to decrease the occurrence of forest fires, researchers have proposed solutions such as enforcing policies, satellite hotspot mapping, and artificial reforestation.

Major Causes of Forest Fires

Land Use

Prescribed Burning
A fire management crew initiating prescribed pile burning to decrease woody debris

In the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, prescribed burning is widely used to generate agricultural land[7]. This method involves a planned and controlled application of fire to a specific land area, with the goal of achieving resource management objectives such as, to enhance a habitat, to prepare an area for tree planting or, for disease eradication[8]. One of the biggest issues involved in prescribed burning is that the fires may pose as a high risk due to uncontrolled spread through ground litter, eventually generating an understory fire[9]. For example, between the years 1985 and 2005, the Xingu Basin, an area located in the southeast of the Amazon rainforest, had 60,900 km2 of forest area burned, which is approximately equivalent to 29% of the Xingu Basin[10].

The increase in fire-impacted forest areas coincide with the relaxation of environmental regulations from the Brazilian government. When the Brazilian government stopped enforcing forest regulations in 2019, the occurrence of prescribed burning increased significantly[11]. Prescribed burning activity increased by 23% from 2019 to 2020, and active fire detections from understory fires were 20% higher than in 2019[12]. As these fires continue to move closer to the heart of the Amazon Basin, their impact on biodiversity will also increase significantly. This is because gaps created by high-intensity fires are particularly susceptible to invasion by exotic species, for example, Cyperus rotundus, which quickly recovers after fire and may respond with an increase in cover[13]. Areas near roads, rivers, and established rural areas have a higher fire incidence because these areas are more attractive to agriculture and pasture[14].


Deforestation refers to the decrease in forest areas that are lost for other uses, such as agricultural croplands, urbanization, or mining activities[15]. Deforestation has been determined to be one of the leading causes of forest fires in the Amazon, as a positive relationship between forest fires and both secondary vegetation and non-forest cover has been established[16]. Land cover changes of the forest make it more flammable, increasing the frequency of fires that occur[16]. In the last 50 years, around 17% of the forest has been lost, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching[17]. Deforestation in this region is particularly evident near more populated areas, roads and rivers, but even remote areas have been encroached upon when valuable mahogany, gold, and oil are discovered[17].

Fueled by high demand for timber products, selective and illegal logging are important drivers of Amazon rainforest destruction[18]. In illegal logging, the terms for forest concessions are short, so companies have few incentives to replant trees or harvest efficiently, leaving many damaged areas that will take years to recover[19]. Selective logging, the practice of removing one or two trees and leaving the rest intact, is often considered a sustainable method of logging and can be a long-term source of income for people and the environment[20]. However, it is often not carried out in accordance to such standards. Selective logging has been one of the main factors for the spread of forest fires, even in places that are distant from the main foci of deforestation[21]. This leads to a number of wide-ranging impacts, such as fragmentation of species habitat and significant financial losses[19]. This process also contributes to the increase in damage to forest biomass and consequent emission of carbon into the atmosphere, as well as facilitating the spreading of forest fires and increasing their intensity.

Climate Change

A map of the extent and frequency of understory fires across a southern Amazon forest from 1999-2010. Recurrent fires are concentrated in areas favored by the confluence of climate conditions suitable for burning and ignition sources from humans.

During dry seasons, man-made fires can cause large scale losses of forest areas. Under the influence of climate change, extended dry seasons are continuously increasing fire risk in the Amazon, since fires can easily spread through ground litter and lose control. This results in the formation of understory fires[7]. The frequency of dry days in the Amazon rainforest is currently increasing, while the frequency of wet days keep diminishing[22]. At the same time, the frequency of extreme drought caused by El Niño and warm conditions in the tropical North Atlantic Ocean has already occured 4 times within the past 20 years[22]. During these extreme droughts, the combination of increased number of dry days and warming temperatures, can cause decreased streamflow, increased evaporation demand, large-scale tree deaths, and dry soils. This results in increased potential for large forest fires[23]. Over the 31-year-period between 1985 and 2015, forest fires only occurred in the years with extreme droughts caused by El Niño[14], demonstrating that the Amazon rainforest is highly vulnerable to climate change.

Besides fire risk caused directly by droughts, the loss of forest itself can also be a cause of drought. In rainforests, trees are able to uptake water from soil and release water into the atmosphere through transpiration. The water will accumulate in the atmosphere and eventually become precipitation[24]. With the increasing portion of agricultural lands in the Amazon, forest areas and precipitation are decreasing. A 13% decrease of water vapor released by trees can cause a 55% to 70% decrease in precipitation in Amazon[24], this leads to droughts and increased fire risks.

Consequences of Forest Fires

Forest Degradation

When a forest is degraded, it still exists, but it can no longer function well. It becomes a shell of its former self and its health deteriorates until it can no longer support people and wildlife[25]. The main cause of forest degradation is uncontrolled forest fires. Climate change also drives forest degradation, as higher temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns increase the risk of severity of forest fires, pest infestation, and disease[26]. A report by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) estimated that 13,235 km2 of forest was lost between August 2020 and July 2021[25]. In the last decade, the great fire (mega-fire) in northern Brazilian Amazon affected approximately 12,000 km2 of forest, emitting large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere and reducing biomass carbon stocks. Between the years 1992 and 2013, 337,427 km² of forest area was degraded across the Brazilian Amazon[27].

Significant floristic and structural changes can already be observed in the Amazon rainforest under the current frequency and intensity of forest fires. These changes increase the vulnerability of forests and make them more susceptible to events such as climate change[7]. The intense and recurrent fires in the area will lead to severely burned forest areas and can cause the Amazon rainforest to enter an accelerated and irreversible process of degradation[28].

Restoring degraded forests is one of the central concerns of international efforts to curb climate change and biodiversity loss[27]. If degraded forests, particularly those in the tropics, are able to recover, they will have the potential to sequester and store larger amounts of CO₂ from the atmosphere, serving as a net carbon sink to offset a portion of society's greenhouse gas emissions[3].

Soil Erosion

Soil erosion have several causes, including wind, chemical weathering, and the freezing and thawing of water[29]. Natural ecosystems regulate erosion through intercepting water flow with vegetation and storing water within the soil structure[29]. When the rainforest exists in a natural state, the soil is protected from the impact of rainfall in several ways. For instance, the canopy of the trees intercept and hold much of the precipitation, allowing it to slowly work its way to the ground[29]. Trees may drip water from their leaves and branches for a considerable time after rainfall events, extending the duration of the rainfall and giving the water more time to absorb into the soil. However, When vegetation is removed or damaged from forest fires, the soil is left exposed to the heavy rainfall and is rapidly eroded[30]. Areas without vegetation experience greater water velocity, which increases its erosive potential[29]. Soil erosion is particularly problematic in the Amazon rainforest, as rainforest soils are often very poor and fragile[31]. Regular heavy rainfall can rapidly destroy soil structure and begin the process of erosion[29].

When soil is eroded in active agricultural land, it makes lighter soil properties such as new seeds and seedlings more difficult to be planted and grown[32]. This will impact future crop production. Furthermore, soil erosion reduces organic and fertile matter, which decreases the ability for the land to regenerate new flora or crops[32]. When new crops and plants can't be successfully planted, this perpetuates a cycle of reduced levels of organic nutrients[32]. Soil acidity also has a higher chance of increasing, significantly impacting the ability for plants and crops to grow[32]. Once the process starts, erosion spreads rapidly unless measures are implemented to control the flow of water and protect the soil surface[30].

Human Health

Smoke from forest fires along the Rio Xingu (Xingu River) in the Amazon Rainforest

Smoke generated from forest fires are made up of a mixture of gases and very small particles that are produced when wood and other organic matter burn[33]. These small particles and gases can be very harmful to humans. Larger and more intense wildfires have created the potential for greater smoke production and chronic exposures across the Amazon[34]. The effects of smoke from forest fires can range from eye and respiratory tract irritation, to more serious disorders including reduced lung function, exacerbation of asthma, bronchitis, heart failure, and even premature death[34].

In 2019, a joint report by the Institute for Health Policy Studies indicated that deforestation-related fires were associated with a significant negative impact on public health in the Amazon region[35]. This includes 2,195 hospitalizations due to respiratory illness attributable to the fires. The study found that patients spent a total of 6,698 days in the hospital as a result of exposure to air pollution from fires[35]. It is estimated that in 2012, vegetation fires had contributed >80% of simulated dry season mean surface PM 2.5 in the western Amazon region, particularly in Bolivia and the Brazilian states of Acre, Mato Grosso and Rondônia[36]. It was also estimated that the prevention of forest fires in the Amazon would have precluded 16,800 premature deaths and 641,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years (DAYLS) across countries in South America, with 26% of the avoided health burden located within the Amazon Basin[36]. The smoke generated by forest fires in the Amazon have been positively associated with mortality and morbidity of vulnerable groups[37]

The Greenhouse Effect & Global Warming

The greenhouse effect is a process that occurs when gases in Earth's atmosphere trap the Sun's heat. This process makes Earth much warmer than it would be without an atmosphere, allowing Earth to be a comfortable place to live[38]. The Amazon rainforest absorbs huge amounts of CO2 from Earth's atmosphere, making it a key part of mitigating climate change[38]. However, the Amazon rainforest is currently creating more greenhouse gases than it is absorbing[39]. Research has shown that the Amazon rainforest is now emitting more than 1.1 billion tons of CO2, a greenhouse gas, a year[40]. The repeated occurrence of forest fires has reinforced a feedback loop of warming, with more greenhouse gases contributing to longer, hotter dry seasons in the Amazon, which lead to more fires and more CO2 pollution[40].

Additionally, global warming has been an ongoing issue, causing conditions of heat stress that are occurring at a more frequent and intense rate in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, particularly the high emission rates all across the Amazon.[41] It is suggested that the heat stress index has the ability to surpass the human adaptation limit by 2100 under the combined effects of Amazon climate change and savannization[41]. Moreover, findings show that heat stress exposure was at its peak in Northern Brazil and are among the most socially vulnerable. It is suggested that by 2100, savannization of the Amazon will result in >11 million people being exposed to heat stress, which poses an extreme risk to human health under a scenarios of high emission.[41]

Solutions to Forest Fires

Enforcing Policies

Number of Fires in Brazil, from August 2019 - September 2019

Enforcing policies has shown to be an effective solution to reducing Amazon forest fires. This is demonstrated by the "zero tolerance" policy for environmental crimes that was implemented by the president of Brazil, President Jair Boisonaro[42] in 2019. Fire season in Brazil typically peaks in September. When the policy was enforced between the months of August and September in 2019, fire alerts in the Amazon rainforest decreased by 34%[42]. In contrast, other forested regions in Brazil showed an increase in fire alerts in September[42]. Law enforcement was dispatched to fight the fires and the government enacted a two-month ban on the use of fire to clear land. While this ban was in effect across Brazil, stricter rules were applied within the Amazon, resulting in a significant reduction in fire alerts[42].

The issue with current policy enforcement is that there is a lack of integration of knowledge, actions, and strategies, causing the effectiveness of policies to be reduced[43]. Reduction of fires will only be possible through the integration of information and policies in decision making, and available resources at the federal, state, and municipal levels[43]. Alternatives to slash-and-burn techniques have existed for millennia, what is needed are policies that inform and capacitate stakeholders to use them and offer financial support for the implementation of new techniques when necessary[44].

Satellite Hotspot Mapping

Satellite hotspot mapping of fires in the Amazon Rainforest between August 15, 2019 and August 22, 2019

To increase the monitoring potential of forest fires, an alert classification methodology using satellite-mapped hotspots has been established. This technology helps forest managers prioritize which hotspot needs to be verified in the field, which significantly improves the distribution of fire-fighting resources[45]. Satellite hotspots involve integrating system resources and geo-processing technologies in order to determine alert levels for mapped hotspots, identifying their real degree of danger[45]. In some cases, forest fire risk zones are assigned subjective categories ranging from very high to very low, according to their sensitivity to fire or their fire-inducing capability [46]. This allows proper fire-fighting actions to be established. The faster the detection time and arrival of the fire area, the lower the probability of the fire going out of control.

In 2007, satellite hotspot mapping was tested in the Carajás National Forest, in the Brazilian Amazon. This methodology allowed researchers to highlight the hotspots with the highest probability of becoming serious fire threats, by means of the alert level classification [45]. For 5 months, all alert level-based movement of the task force to confirmed hotspots was successful. This led to faster fighting actions, minimized burned areas, and even allowed fire control before its spreading [45]. Satellite hotspot mapping has proved to increase the potential to monitor broad forest areas, enhancing the distribution of fire-fighting resources, and could be readily adapted to other forest areas.

Artificial Reforestation

Reforestation is the process of establishing a new stand of trees on a previously forested site following a disturbance, such as a fire [47]. While reforestation can occur naturally, by letting nature handle the job of revegetating a site with trees, artificial regeneration is often times more effective. Artificial regeneration involves direct seeding and planting [48]. While it may seem counter-intuitive, this process sometimes involves purposely burning certain forest areas. This process aids the adaption towards climate change and promotes plant diversity through a process called "thinning" [49]. The goal is to mimic a small forest fire that should be occurring in the first place, and would be done where trees are dense and could pose a potential threat of a large forest fire [49]. After this process, fast growing tree species are planted to speed up the reforestation process. Pioneer species may also be planted, as they can survive in poor quality soil and will ultimately help build up the soil for other plants to follow [49]. This methodology produces numerous benefits, such as soil erosion reduction, improved habitat life, improved air quality, and can even convert previously damaged areas into fully functioning forest ecosystems [50].


Forest fires have posed as a serious threat to the Brazilian Amazon for years. The number of fires in the Amazon rainforest are predicted to increase unless specific measures are taken to combat this issue. As the human population grows, the need for timber products, agricultural land, and resources will surge. This causes an increase in prescribed burning, deforestation, and climate change, resulting in the frequency of forest fires to grow at an exponential rate. Furthermore, the damage that fires cause to forests are making them even more vulnerable to future fires, creating a closed cycle which will accelerate the process of deforestation and climate change. These 2 factors will create greater fire risks. Therefore, there is an immediate need to enhance solutions to forest fires.

Currently, researchers have proposed some solutions for combatting the frequency of forest fires, such as enforcing policies, satellite hotspot mapping, and artificial reforestation. While these methods have been proven to work, further action must still be taken to combat this issue. In order to avoid further consequences, people need to seek more efficient and effective solutions. In the future, increased policy enforcement and investments into forest fighting technologies is recommended .


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