Written by Abi Gwynn (Research student from University of Exeter)
Over the last two weeks, the dreaded fires have started in and around Palangka Raya and now smoke blankets the city. New fires are starting every day, adding to the smoky haze, and seem to be edging nearer to the forest. What has struck me most about this environmental catastrophe is that it receives no international media attention. As soon as fires hit the western world, such as those in California and Gran Canaria, everybody knows about them. Not that they aren’t important, but the fires occurring here in Indonesia are much more widespread, prolonged and globally significant for climate change, so need awareness!
How do they start?
The words ‘fire’ and ‘rainforest’ may seem a little oxymoronic, and before human influence, they were. Fires did not naturally occur in rainforests (for obvious reasons!). However, as humans started modifying the landscape by logging, clearing for agriculture and draining peatlands, rainforests started to dry out and become more susceptible to burning. Fires are often started to clear land to grow new crops or build houses and can then spread into the nearby rainforest. They soon rage out of control due to the high flammability of the dry peat soil.
What are tropical peatlands?
Much of the land in Indonesian Borneo, Sumatra and Malaysia is composed of peat soil. Tropical peatlands are a type of tropical rainforest where waterlogged soil prevents dead vegetation from fully decomposing. Peatlands are critical in maintaining the climate as they are the most efficient carbon sink on the planet. Peatlands only cover around 3% of the Earth’s surface but store around 30% of the world’s carbon! But it is the peat’s high carbon content that is its downfall in the face of humanity. Once ignited on the surface, the fire will penetrate down into the peat which can burn underground and undetected for days, months, years or even centuries. It is extremely difficult to extinguish, especially if you cannot see it and do not have enough resources to fight it.
Due to the vast carbon stores in tropical peat, when it burns, carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide contributing to the warming of the climate. To get an idea of the scale of how much carbon is released, in the 1997 Indonesian fires the equivalent of approximately one-quarter of annual, global fossil fuel emissions were released into the atmosphere! But the problem doesn’t stop there! The warming of the climate increases the likelihood of more fires in the years to come. Warmer atmospheric temperatures increase the frequency and severity of El Nino Southern Oscillation events. El Nino events happen every 3-5 years and cause climatic conditions in Indonesia to be drier and hotter than usual…so making fires more likely. It’s a vicious cycle!
Tropical peat fires destroy huge areas of habitat for many rainforest dwelling species too. For example, 2.6 million hectares of peatland forest burned over South-East Asia in 2015. It is thought that fire is the single greatest threat to orangutans now (and I’m sure many other species!), due to it’s ability to destroy huge areas of habitat very quickly. Not to mention the negative health effects the smoke will cause on wildlife in the same way humans may suffer from respiratory problems. It has been shown that gibbons sing less when the forest is smoky and baby orangutans at rehabilitation centres have to be treated for acute respiratory problems.
What it’s like in Palangka Raya now
Although things change day by day, Palangka Raya is now under a constant blanket of smoke and it seems to be spreading closer to the forest. There are many helicopters flying over dangling large containers of water to douse on fires but they do not look nearly big enough. Firefighting efforts should help control fires for now and hopefully stop them from spreading into the forest, but the only thing that will stop them completely is rain. So please pray for rain everyone! I’ll never complain about rain again when I’m back home in the UK after seeing how much it is needed here!
I hope after reading this blog you know a little more about tropical peat fires and how important it is that awareness is raised about this globally significant environmental catastrophe. We have started to fundraise online here for equipment and other support to help local community firefighting teams tackle the fires.