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What Satellite Imagery Can Tell Us About The Fires Burning In The Amazon


Much of what's known about the fires burning in the Amazon comes from satellite images analyzed by Brazil's Space Agency. Doug Morton of NASA, here in the U.S., is familiar with those images. He's collaborated with Brazilian scientists for decades, studying the Amazon, and he continues to monitor the situation today.

Welcome to the program.

DOUG MORTON: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: You've been looking at these satellite images for a long time. Just how big a jump is it this year in terms of the spread of the fire?

MORTON: So the fires we're detecting from satellites this year are more than we've seen in any year since 2010. And the locations of those fires, the timing and the intensity of the burning that we can see from space is consistent with the fact that deforestation is on the rise.

CORNISH: How can you tell? I mean, is it darker? I mean, what does it mean to look at a satellite image and see that in action?

MORTON: So what we see right now from space is a series of fires that are burning at the edge of the Amazon frontier, right at the interface between standing tropical rain forest and areas that have already been cleared for agricultural use. And the way we view those fires from space, the tall, towering columns of smoke tells us they're burning a lot of wood in those fires, and that big, intense fire sends smoke not just to the local communities but far downwind for folks breathing in the western Amazon and, ultimately, to the southern part of the country.

CORNISH: It sounds like you can tell, via these images, that people are setting these fires.

MORTON: Natural fires are very rare in the Amazon because lightning comes with rainfall. So we can say that nearly 100% of the fires we see from space are started by people, either intentionally or accidentally.

CORNISH: You talk about looking at the location and getting a sense of the causes of the fire. I mean, can the data identify a motive?

MORTON: So far this year, we've seen about 80,000 fires detected from our satellites over the Brazilian Amazon, and they're spread out across thousands of miles. The location of those fires are consistent with areas where agricultural activities have been expanding. And so the number of fires, their distribution and their timing is more consistent with an economic motive than other drivers of fire activity.

CORNISH: Given the scale of what you've described, how does one fight a fire like this?

MORTON: It's very difficult to fight fires in the Amazon. Because of the long extent of human occupation across what we typically describe as the frontier, there may be a hundred fires burning in a state in the Amazon region of Brazil on any given day. And they may be spread out by tens, if not hundreds, of miles from one another.

The critical part for working to combat these fires is early detection because a fire, when it's caught early, is much easier to fight than one that only gets noticed on the second, third or 10th day it's been burning, and now that small fire that may have started on a farm at the edge of the Amazon has spread to provide an active fire front that would take you days to walk, even if you didn't have to put out the fire.

CORNISH: What's one thing you think people should understand about what's happening that you're not hearing in the coverage, news or otherwise?

MORTON: The people in the communities who live downwind from areas where clearing and burning is going on are experiencing some of the worst air quality in the world right now. The way the smoke from fires blows west into the Amazon regions like Acre, into countries like Bolivia and, ultimately, south into the southern parts of Brazil exposes millions of people to poor air quality in a process that not only has environmental consequences in the Amazon, but degrades people's quality of life over thousands of miles.

CORNISH: Doug Morton is chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Thank you for speaking with us.

MORTON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.