The effects of climate change seem to become more evident every day. Each season, the weather patterns seem to grow more extreme. Extreme heat means more droughts and damage from forest fires. More heavy rain means uncontrollable flooding. Drought means fewer crops, less water in the rivers, and less snow in the mountains, which means less water in our reservoirs come summertime. Preventing forest fires will slow climate change because of the amount of carbon dioxide that is released through large-scale fires.
A global weather pattern known as El Niño can make certain areas of the globe drier than usual or wetter than usual. This starts when warm waters in the tropics do not move westward when the warm trade winds blow as they usually do. Every few years, the waters move eastward instead, merging with other warming water and forming a large blanket of water 3 to 10 degrees warmer than usual that affects global weather patterns.
During last fall’s El Niño, Indonesia experienced extreme fires. The blazes, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and on the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo, destroyed more than 10,000 square miles of forests. Skies over the entire area were darkened by the fires and planes were grounded because it was unsafe to fly through the haze. According to the Guardian, many of the fires were started by companies wanting to replace the rain forest with palm oil plantations.
While these fires were large scale, small fires have been burning for decades as farmers have sought to clear land to plant crops that bring in more money.
Last year was a particularly intense El Niño year. During an El Niño year, Southeast Asia is drier than normal, so last year was extremely dry. Less rain and a long fire season means fires can burn out of control.
These fires, burning down thousands of acres of rain forest, are an environmental disaster contributing to climate change, because many of the rain forests in Indonesia are carbon sinks. The World Resources Institute’s blog stated that daily emissions from the 2015 Indonesian fires exceeded those of the United States economy, surpassing 15.95 megatons of carbon dioxide daily. Gunung Palung National Park, located right next to where our partner Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) operates, stores the amount of carbon equivalent to a year and a half of New York City pollution. When burned, the immense amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.
In addition to the environmental damage, experts in public health and atmospheric modeling from Harvard and Columbia estimated that 91,600 people in Indonesia, 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore may have died prematurely because of exposure to fine particle pollution from burning forests. That amount of fine particles in the atmosphere is enough to have global consequences. The amount of carbon dioxide given off in these fires was calculated by a researcher at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands to be higher than Germany’s total carbon dioxide emissions before the 2015 fire season had even ended.
Climate change increases fire risk by extending the fire season through longer periods of hotter weather. Drier conditions increase the likelihood that fires will burn a greater amount of land and will be harder to contain. It also means that trees and other plants may be prone to becoming fuel for fires.
At Health In Harmony, we focus our efforts on improving sustainable farming practices which can slow down climate change. Being concerned with what farmers are growing and how means less land might need to be cleared in the future. Traditional methods like slash-and-burn farming involve burning forest plots to release nutrients that allow crops to thrive, but the nutrient-boosting effect only lasts for a year or so. When the nutrients are depleted, farmers often move on to clear another plot of land. We want to keep the nutrients in the soil, so the same plot of land can be used in perpetuity. Sustainable farming techniques can do this. Health In Harmony is working in partnership with ASRI to teach farmers how to farm sustainably, using fertilizer made from natural and locally found ingredients, and growing crops in a way that helps preserve the fertility of the soil.
Fine particles in the atmosphere contribute to the greenhouse effect, a warming effect which traps heat from the sun in lower levels of the atmosphere. Dry air draws more moisture out of the soil, which in turn make dry soils more susceptible to fire. It’s a vicious cycle, meaning that there is a greater risk of fire and more dry materials for a fire to burn.