Wildfires in the southern Amazon last year and in the nearby Pantanal region were the worst on record, mainly due to the deadly combination of drought and human activity.
These catastrophic fires made 2020 more destructive even than 2019, the previous record-holder for fire damage, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s new report, State of the Climate in Latin America & the Caribbean in 2020, released this week. The blazes caused irreversible damages to vital ecosystems—and to the people dependent on them.
“Continued deforestation is one of the factors that perpetuates these wildfires,” said Jose Marengo, lead author of the report and the director of the National Center for Monitoring Natural Disasters in Sao Paulo. “The Amazon basin has seen an increase in the illegal and legal deforestation over last four years.”
Latin America and the Caribbean are home to almost 60% of the world’s remaining native forests. Together they store an estimated 104 gigatons of carbon, some of which is released back into the atmosphere when forests burn. The Amazon river basin alone, stretching across nine countries, stores 10% of the world’s carbon.
The world’s largest tropical forest, the Amazon captures more carbon than it emits, making it what’s know as a carbon sink. But the ecosystem is teetering on the edge of becoming a net source of carbon, and will soon emit more than it stories if tree loss continues at current rates, according to a scientific report published in Nature in July.
The researchers behind the study conducted 590 flights over the Amazon from 2010 to 2018 to measure carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions. They found that the Amazon was in fact temporarily a net emitter of greenhouse gas from 2010 to 2016, when the area suffered intense drought. “This change can become permanent if global warming, deforestation and an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide continue,” Marengo said.
Fewer fires burned in the Brazilian Amazon from January to July of this year compared to 2019 and 2020, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, or INPE. The fire season, which usually runs from June to October, could be worsened by a record-setting drought and increased deforestation. INPE data also showed that new deforestation in the Amazon between March and June of this year was the highest since at least 2015.
“Fires and deforestation are now threatening one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, with far-reaching and long-lasting repercussions,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “Latin America and the Caribbean is among the regions most challenged by extreme hydro-meteorological events.”
The report also determined that climate-related events have resulted in the loss of 312,000 lives and directly affected more than 277 million people between 1998 and 2020. The region has been hit by high temperatures, record-breaking droughts, floods, sea level rise, tropical cyclones and glacier melting.