Deeper Insight Into 2019 Fires From Satellite Study of Amazon Rainforest

Map Jaru Biological Reserve Flux Tower

This map shows the study area and location of the flux tower used.

Throughout August and early September 2019, media around the world have reported on the extensive forest fires ravaging Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Much of the concern stems from the Amazon’s significance in regulating the world’s climate. According to the Associated Press, the Amazon absorbs 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year — about 5% of global emissions. Thus, fires in the region eat away at this carbon-absorbing capacity while at the same time adding carbon to the air through burning.

A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Ecohydrology headed by University of Kansas researcher Gabriel de Oliveira gives important context to the fires burning big swaths of the Amazon today, most of which were set intentionally by farmers and ranchers to convert forest into land suitable for grazing animals or growing crops. The researchers sought to discover how these changes to land cover affect the exchange of water and heat between the surface of the Amazon and the atmosphere overhead.

Researcher Gabriel de Oliveira

Researcher Gabriel de Oliveira in the Amazon rainforest.

“This is the first study to examine the biosphere-atmosphere interactions in the Amazon with such high spatial resolution satellite imagery,” said de Oliveira, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geography & Atmospheric Science at KU. “We tried to understand the impacts of land-cover changes and deforestation in general. When you clear-cut the forests, and you convert it either to pasture or agriculture — or cut the forest, but for some reason don’t plant anything and then have a type of vegetation called ‘secondary succession’ — our idea was to try to understand how that impacts energy, like the radiative fluxes and water fluxes, or evaporation in general.”

In the paper, de Oliveira and his colleagues analyzed information from both satellites in space and weather stations on the ground in the Amazon. With data from the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) and Large‐Scale Biosphere‐Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), they examined surface energy and water changes over different land‐cover types in one wet year and one drought year in eastern Rondônia state, Brazil. The team also found statistically significant differences in several important measures prior to and after one year of deforestation.

Canopy of the Amazon Rainforest

Canopy of the Amazon rainforest.

“Using NASA satellite images with high spatial resolution (15m) obtained by the ASTER sensor in Rondônia state, in the south-western Brazilian Amazon, we found that deforestation and consequent transition to pasture or agriculture to grow soybean tend to increase in two to four times the soil and air temperatures in the region,” de Oliveira said. “We also observed an approximately three times higher evapotranspiration over forested areas in comparison with nonforested areas.”

The researchers discovered significant variances between areas on opposite sides of the Ji-Paraná River, one side of which had suffered more deforestation than the other side, located within the Jaru Biological Reserve protected area. They measured spatial variation of albedo (or the fraction of the incident sunlight that the surface reflects), net radiation (or the total energy, derived from sunlight, that’s available at the surface), soil and sensible heat fluxes (or how much heat is transferred from the surface to the atmosphere), and evapotranspiration (the process by which water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation from the soil and by transpiration from plants).

Land Cover Map of the Study Area

Land‐cover map of the study area for (a) June 16, 2004, and (b) July 5, 2005. The arrows show the fishbone pattern of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

De Oliveira, who was raised in Brazil, said the rest of the world depends on the Amazon region to help moderate global climate.

“It’s important because it’s the largest rainforest in the world,” he said. “Precipitation in the tropics, all the water fluxes that go on in the tropics, affect the whole world. The Amazon has a very important role in that. There’s no other area in the world like the Amazon’s unique ecosystem. It’s pretty fascinating. I’m from South Brazil, a totally different environment than the Amazon. You could compare it with Kansas. But when I started studying for my master’s degree, my adviser told me, ‘You’re going to work in the Amazon rainforest.’ And I told her I’d never been there. But I spent two months in the rainforest doing research. And of course, you know, I fell in love. I’m very passionate about the Amazon and have been there so many times since then, so I have a lot of experience and stories of things that have happened there.”

The KU researcher cautioned that although forest fires in the Amazon have received attention in the media this year, the fires happen to a greater or lesser degree every year.

Clear Cutting the Rainforest in Ji Parana Rondonia

Clear-cutting the rainforest in Ji-Parana, Rondonia.

“Fires in the Amazon happen every year during the dry season,” de Oliveira said. “We have agricultural areas, areas that were deforested in the past — but in order to clear the area for the next year, or to make the soil a little bit better for the next year, they set afire. They claim they’re only setting fire to burn agricultural lands. But sometimes the fire gets out of control, and it plays a part in more deforestation. Fires get out of control in agricultural land and reach the forest and burn the forest. But these fires happen in the Amazon every year, so it’s pretty straightforward. The worst years were in 2005, 2010, and 2015 because of severe drought events. Everything was really dry, and the fires would get out of control. There are no natural fires in the Amazon. They’re all set by human beings.”


De Oliveira’s co-authors on the study were Nathaniel Brunsell, professor and chair of KU’s geography & atmospheric science department; Elisabete Moraes, Yosio Shimabukuro, Celso von Randow and Luiz E.O.C. Aragao of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research; Thiago dos Santos of the University of Michigan and Renata de Aguiar of the Federal University of Rondônia.

Reference: “Effects of land‐cover changes on the partitioning of surface energy and water fluxes in Amazonia using high‐resolution satellite imagery” by Gabriel de Oliveira, Nathaniel A. Brunsell, Elisabete C. Moraes, Yosio E. Shimabukuro, Thiago V. dos Santos, Celso von Randow, Renata G. de Aguiar and Luiz E.O.C. Aragao, 19 June 2019, Wiley.
DOI: 10.1002/eco.2126

Images: Gabriel de Oliveira and study collaborators

2 Comments on "Deeper Insight Into 2019 Fires From Satellite Study of Amazon Rainforest"

  1. WARNING! Shale oil exploration and extraction is causing a massive increase in global warming and I’m PLEADING with all of you in the government and oil industry to stop it IMMEDIATELY! Our planet CANNOT take this increase in global warming caused by ALL the gas and oil shale wells around the world that has been drilled since shale oil and gas wells have been in operation for the last 6 to 8 years. Worldwide all the burning of gas by these wells have been adding massive amounts of hot air and pollutants into the atmosphere and our atmosphere CANNOT under any circumstances absorb this heat and pollution without heating up the atmosphere! Our planet can only take about 3 to 5 more years of the damage caused by heat and pollutants from shale oil extraction before we hit the point of no return to normal at which time the Earth will hasten it’s demise into a dead planet! Life CANNOT survive on Earth without the clouds to provide shade and rain for the Earth and clouds and rain cannot be produced if there is no trees. Wise up folks or you will be kissing your planet goodbye in YOUR LIFETIME!!!!

    I am pleading with all of you to stop getting oil from shale wells. These shale wells around the world collectively are drastically increasing global warming because if you add up all the heat and pollution from these millions of shale wells you will see that the Earth is being bombarded with a heat wave that is equivalent to having an area the size of Florida and maybe more to be having a 24/7 constant stream of gas being burned and it’s heat being released into our atmosphere. Our atmosphere rely’s on the cold air molecules from outer space to help keep our planet cool. However that process only gives the Earth so much cold air from out space. If you over load this process then the air on Earth will get hotter. If you also have jet engine airplanes, rockets and automobiles heat figured into the equation then you have what we have today which is a time in history where the Earth cannot cool itself enough not to have extreme global warming. We can’t now get rid of all the combustion engines and until we wise up and start using propeller airplanes instead of jet airplanes we will have a global warming situation. Before 2016 when shale oil drilling got started the Earth was only heating up at a much slower rate than today. With shale oil drilling the Earth will be going thru some drastic changes yearly as the earth’s atmosphere heats up from the heat we humans created on Earth. So the choice is yours to make. Either save the earth by stop shale oil production or kiss this planet goodbye in about 10 years because when the North and South poles ice has melted and the snow and ice glaciers around the world are melted our planet will not be able to cool itself enough from the sun’s rays to sustain life on Earth! Is that what you want for you or your children and everyone else! Wake up world and stop being capitalist that do what they want no matter what!
    I want ALL of you to go to an area around you that has tree coverage. Go to the area where there are trees with lots of leaves on them. Feel how the temperature is when you stand below the tree’s most shaded spot. Then go into an area nearby that has no trees but lots of sunlight. Feel the temperature difference between the shaded area and the sun filled area. That is proof that trees are natures way of keeping the Earth cooled. TREES AND CLOUDS are natures ONLY way that Nature has to help keep Earth cool. Trees are the ONLY thing on Earth that puts additional moisture in the atmosphere so to create clouds and eventually rain. Without trees life on Earth could not survive. Too little of an amounth of trees on Earth and the Earth will slide into a global warming condition. The Earth had many more trees and bigger trees and animals millions of years ago but that was because the Earth was able to produce trees and all other living things on Earth in a much bigger way due to the environment that existed then but not today. The Earth had a lot more oxegin in the air back then and no pollutants to prevent Nature from doing it’s job. We have to start replanting the Earth with as many trees as we can or life on Earth will continue to slowly die from how we care for this planet. We HAVE to get farmers to plant a block wide trees lines around their farmland to help get this started. We have to get people out to open areas and plant trees where they can. We have to do something instead of just talking about doing something and doing nothing as we are doing today. We have to stop using wood in as many things as we can, be it home building, furniture building or other wood products. Then we ALL have to stop flying turbo jet engine airplanes because their 800 to 2500 degree engines are heating up and destroying with pollution the upper atmosphere where clouds are formed. But you better do something now or else this human heated planet called Earth will evolve into a condition in about 10-40 years where the Earth will spiral into a condition that will prevent plant live and most animal live from living on Earth. Take a good look at Mars, that is the condition that Earth is headed for!

  2. I want ALL of you to realize that before the Ice Age on Earth that the Earth did NOT experience the winters that we use to have about 60 years ago and had since the Ice Age. Since 1960 when global warming started due to the introduction of jet engine airplanes, rockets and rocket weapons which drastically increased the heat in the upper atmosphere where rain clouds form, the Earth stopped having the normal winters we use to have and progressed into the kind of winters we have now which in no way compare to the kind of winters we had before 1960. If the Earth continues on the path it is on today the Earth will be doomed to not being able to support life on Earth for us humans.
    Think about this. Before the Ice Age the Earth REALLY didn’t have much cold winters. The weather before the Ice Age allowed vegetation and trees to grow all the way up in Alaska and all the other places that are now cold areas of the Earth. In fact I believe we didn’t have much cold air around the world at all before the Ice Age. The Ice Age gave the planet all the ice we have seen on the North and South Poles and all the glaciers around the world. There is NO WAY Mother Nature can reproduce the amount of ice again again around the world as it did when the Ice Age happened. A super volcano somewhere on Earth erupted millions of years ago and all it’s volcano ash block out the sun for many years which then caused the Ice Age. The ONLY way the Earth will be able to have as much ice as it did before the current global warming started in 1960 is for the Earth to experience another super volcano eruption.
    Because of global warming the Earth is headed for the way the Earth was before the Ice Age. Unfortunately we humans will in no way be able to survive as we do today in that kind of world which has no cold winters! Farming like we have today will not be possible anymore because the Earth will be getting much less rain. The Earth’s water will evaporate from the heat of the Sun. Streams and rivers will first quickly disappear as all life around it either dies or go on a constant move looking for livable areas on the planet. Mass chaos by people worldwide will only add to everyone’s problems as humans and animals fight for whatever is left on Earth for them to survive. Insects will drastically multiply and kill millions of people and animals as the insects spread their diseases worldwide.
    Some now think that the Earth will evolve to how the Earth was before the Ice Age once the North and South Poles and the glaciers around the world are melted. That will not happen because before the Ice Age there was mostly trees and vegetation around the world. That is not so today. Also the earth atmosphere had a lot more oxygen and moisture in the atmosphere to sustain a world with as much trees and vegetation as it had before the Ice Age.
    So think about all these things before you vote because whoever controls our government is going to have to save us from this hell, this global warming situation we humans have put this planet in! Do ANY of you trust Trump and the Republicans to save the planet from destruction!

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