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Fighting the Amazon Rainforest Fires with Real-Time Data [Guest Post]

By Karyn Tabor | October 8, 2019
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August’s fires in the Amazon rainforest made headlines around the world. For a few weeks, it seemed like everyone was paying attention to the devasting effects of the 2019 fire season, as well as the need to mitigate tropical forest fires. Some of the stories during that time contained conflicting reports about the scale, severity, causes, and impacts of the fires.

The hype has started to shift to other stories and regions, but the fires are still burning—and there’s more to the story than what was initially reported. At Conservation International, we understand the importance of monitoring the Amazon fires in real-time and presenting the data as actionable information. That’s why we recently launched a real-time interactive analytics dashboard. At a glance, change makers (including politicians, nonprofit organizers, and everyday people) can see what’s happening in the Amazon, including where the fires are, their progress, how this year compares to past years, and what we can do about it.

August 2019 was one of the worst months for fires in 5 years.

 

We needed a technology partner that could help us turn our vision into reality by providing a solution that could do two things. First, it needed to support real-time data analytics. Nearly every data visualization in the fire tracker is updated daily—including the locations of the satellite-detected fires, how they’re affecting protected and indigenous lands, and how the 2019 fire season compares to past years.

Second, we needed a customizable platform that could match the visual look and feel of our organization’s branding and website. This may seem like a nice-to-have, but change-makers have limited time and need credible sources of information. We realized that if the dashboard wasn’t instantly engaging and easy to understand, our audience might not be able to easily digest the information. When the health of the planet is on the line, we know a branded user interface with clear, compelling data visualizations is crucial.

The Data that Fights Fires

With our two business intelligence requirements in mind, we decided to partner with Logi Analytics to create the dashboard. The next step was to decide how to analyze and interpret the fire data to tease apart the complexity of factors fueling this fire season. We landed on a number of key metrics to better communicate the complexity of fire dynamics in the Amazon and help the people understand both the causes driving the fires and the potential solutions.

  • Where are the fires? We’re using data from NASA’s satellites to track the locations and spatial and temporal trends of fires. Over a quarter of fires are in forested areas, with an additional one-third of fires occurring on the forest-agricultural frontier (the forest edges). These edge fires are particularly risky, since they dry out the forest and can make these areas more susceptible to future fires and droughts. Over time this degradation can permanently change the biome of the Amazon from a rainforest to predominantly a grassland system.

 

More than half of the fires are in or near forests.

 

  • How does 2019 compare to past years? August 2019 was one of the worst months for Amazon fires in five years. However, it’s important to note that there have been worse fire years in the Amazon compared to 2019 as a whole. Fire is not a new issue; it’s a continuing crisis that is getting worse with climate change.
  • Who owns or manages the land? By understanding where the fires are occurring and who owns fire-affected areas, we’ve been able to reach out to those landowners and managers to intervene. Most of the fires were started by farmers who are regenerating their fields for next season’s crops or clearing new land to expand crop production, so one intervention has been to educate farmers about current and future dry conditions using early warning systems for fire weather. Another solution is to introduce trees in agricultural lands, what we call agro-forestry systems, that can be profitable and beneficial to restoring nutrients to the soil and retaining soil moisture. This provides an additional incentive to farmers to invest in fire prevention or practice more careful fire use on their lands.
  • Are these areas protected, and what is their current status? Conservation International tracks how the fires are affecting protected areas and lands managed by indigenous peoples. We are helping indigenous people access geospatial data to monitor and respond to new fires on the ground. We promote the work of in-country partners such as Fundacion Amigos de La Naturaleza in Bolivia to empower local communities and firefighters with alert tools so they can address fires quickly before they spread out of control. We’re also tracking patterns, trends, and changes to Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing and Degazettement (PADDD) status of local areas. These legal changes can reduce the protections of previously protected areas.
  • Beyond the rainforest, what are the effects down the line? Brazil is one of the leading producers of soy and beef exports. Conservation International is using data from Trase to track the beef and soy supply chains. We can see which countries are purchasing the most products from the fire-affected areas of the Amazon—including China, the European Union, Brazil, Egypt, and Russia. That means we can engage with the companies that are purchasing these products to affect change in their supply chains.

What the Future Holds

The Amazon rainforest fires are at an important turning point. We’re fast-approaching what’s called the “Amazon Tipping Point.” Up to 20 percent of Amazon forests are already gone. Experts say that if that number reaches 25 or 30 percent, the entire biome of that region will be permanently changed, with climate ramifications across the world.

So, what can individuals do? Start by understanding where the products you buy come from—especially soy and beef, but even ingredients like palm oil, which is in everything from ice cream to shampoo. You can start tracking your carbon foot print by using our calculator. Individuals can also vote for environmental change, choosing legislation that maintains the protected status of certain regions and helps reduce CO2 emissions globally.

Visit Conservation International’s website to see more data from the fires in the Amazon rainforest.

About the Author

Karyn Tabor is the senior director of ecological monitoring in the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science at Conservation International. Karyn’s research is focused in developing decision-making tools to support sustainable land management for a range of stakeholders including indigenous peoples, conservation practitioners, and government technicians.

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