The largest rainforest in the world is in flames: The Brazilian space research institute INPE reported more than 72,000 fires this year - the highest number since 2013 and 83 percent more than in the previous year. Data from NASA show the devastating extent of the fires - every red dot on the map represents an active source of fire in the past 24 hours alone.
French President Emmanuel Macron warns of an international crisis and wants to put the fires at the top of the agenda of the upcoming G7 summit in Biarritz. Ireland threatens Brazil to block the free trade agreement with the Mercosur states if Brazil does not take action against the fires. Head of state Jair Bolsonaro, meanwhile, refuses to interfere and submits Macron to a "colonialist mentality". (Read more about the political consequences of the fires here.)
For years, Rico Fischer from the Helmholz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig has been investigating how fires and deforestation affect the global carbon footprint of forests. In an interview, he explains how extraordinary the fires in the Amazon are.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Fischer, in the Amazon Rainforest there are always forest fires. Are the current fires normal?
Rico Fischer: That it burns in the Amazon rainforest in the dry season is not uncommon. The lower rainfall favors this. However, the number of fires this year is the highest in six years.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the consequences of the flames?
Fischer: Smaller fires are usually no problem for the ecosystem, they even help it. Some tree species need fires for propagation, because only through the heat do the capsules burst around the seeds. For slowly growing plants, fire can be a blessing: when the trees around them have shot up, they have little light left. Smaller fires provide open space and contribute to the rejuvenation of the forest.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So everything is so bad?
Fischer: No. The problem is the far too high number of fires. Naturally, only a few fires would arise. The vast majority of recent fires are man-made, and they hit an already weakened ecosystem. Deforestation and climate change have already hit him hard.
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SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are the global consequences?
Fischer: In the short term, very large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. At the same time an important CO2 storage of the planet is attacked: The rainforest. The Amazon is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. Due to climate change, it will also be warmer and drier there, the number of fires is likely to increase, which will release even more greenhouse gases in the future.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can the Amazon Rainforest recover from this?
Fischer: That's a lengthy process. Healthy rainforest ecosystems take about a hundred years to regenerate after a fire. In the case of the Amazon, it is likely to take much longer because it is already weakened by deforestation and climate change - if he is even recovering. I'm afraid that many of the open spaces that have been created could be used for agricultural purposes in the future and tear even larger gaps in the rainforest - this is problematic.
10 picturesFires in Brazil: Apocalypse on the Amazon
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you affect the rest of the trees?
Fischer: A fragmented forest is disturbed. At the edges it is much drier and hotter than in the middle of the forest. The fire danger rises and trees die down. Added to this is the increasing deforestation. A vicious circle that we may not be able to stop at some point.