18 February 2016 12:06

Record breaking fires in the Brazilian Amazon have destroyed thousands of kilometres of protected forests, stripping them of biodiversity, killing wildlife and releasing tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Forests burn in the Brazilian Amazon every year when some of the fires, used by farmers to clear areas of fallow or rid pastures of weeds, run out of control. But researchers studying biodiversity in the region have warned recent forest fires have been ‘exceptional’ and 2015 will have a global impact with thousands of tonnes of carbon being released into the atmosphere from the burned forests.

Lancaster University Environmental Scientists have returned from Brazil where they witnessed harm to human health, loss of wildlife and the destruction of many of their own research sites, all caused by the fires.

Dr Erika Berenguer of Lancaster University said: “The situation is alarming.  It has been very distressing to see first-hand how communities are suffering the effects of smoke inhalation, to see the forest burning in front of us and to witness wildlife trying to escape.

“The El Niño phenomenon contributed to 2015’s increased temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns, which increased the intensity of the dry-season across large swathes of the humid tropics.  

“Twelve Amazonian cities have decreed a state of emergency due to the threat to human health. Task forces have been assigned to combat fires, but resources are thin and the region is too vast. Almost all fires are left to burn themselves out.

“In terms of human health this is terrible news for Brazil but in terms conservation and of carbon loss, this is a global environmental concern.”

Professor Jos Barlow from Lancaster University emphasized the effects these fires can have on biodiversity including bird populations.

He said: “Wildfires such as these eliminate a large portion of the understorey bird community, including a diverse group of forest specialists that take many decades to return to disturbed forests.”

Statistics newly released in Brazil show:

  • Three out of six Amazonian states have had record fire incidences in 2015.
  • All 6 states have had at least one month with record fire figures for the period. Some states had up to 6 record months
  • All of the 6 states had a substantial increase in the number of fires in relation to 2014, ranging from 25% increase to as high as a 99% increase
  • Across the 6 states, there was an overall 48% increase in the number of fires in relation to 2014, which translates into an extra 28,256 fires.
  • In January 2016, the rain didn’t come, and some states experienced another record occurrence in fires for this period. One state, Amazonas, set the new record (770 fires) as almost 10 times higher as the previous one (82 fires).

The research group includes: Jos Barlow, Professor of Conservation Science, Lancaster University and Erika De Berenguer Cesar, Senior Research Associate, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University