The forest fires in the Amazon keep the minds busy. Thousands of people use social media to call attention to the fires in the world's largest rainforest and government leaders are concerned. But with all attention for this subject, misunderstandings have also arisen, so we are not at all sure whether there is a record number of forest fires this year. What is true about the reports about the Amazon rainforest?
Various media worldwide wrote in August that a record number of forest fires was raging in the Amazon rainforest. NU.nl also reported on August 21 that since the start of the measurements in 2013, there had never before been so many forest fires in the Amazon, namely 72,843. These messages are based on data from the Brazilian Institute for Space Research INPE, which tries to map forest fires in Brazil with the help of satellite photos.
The INPE reports on its website that from January to August 2019 indeed more than seventy thousand 'focal points' were found in Brazil. But what are 'focal points'? A focal point is not, as NU.nl wrote, the same as a forest fire.
What is a focal point?
The INPE explains that when one focal point is detected, this means that there is at least one forest fire in one pixel of a satellite photo. The INPE measures with different satellites and the area that covers one pixel differs per satellite. This can vary from an area of 1 square kilometer to an area of 20 square kilometers.
If a forest fire is larger than a pixel, the fire is therefore registered as several focal points and if there are several separate forest fires within the area of one pixel, this is precisely registered as one forest fire. In addition, the way in which forest fires are investigated also makes it possible for forest fires to be counted twice.
The INPE writes that they know on the basis of their data whether there is a fire in a certain area. But they cannot tell how much land is on fire and whether it is rainforest or agricultural land that is on fire, for example.
See also: What is the cause of the forest fires in the Amazon rainforest?
What has the INPE measured?
The INPE found that in the period January to August, there were never before as many focal points as in 2019, so there are more than 70,000. A large part of the 70,000 focal points is in the Amazon, but not all. 48 percent of the focal points are outside the Amazon.
NASA does not see a record year yet
Based on the INPE data, we therefore do not know whether a record amount of forest was on fire in 2019. NASA wrote on the basis of satellite data from 11 and 13 August that the total 'fire activity' in the entire Amazon at that time was close to the average of the past 15 years.
NASA writes that forest fires occur rarely in the Amazon for much of the year, because there is normally a lot of rain and the humidity is high. Forest fires usually occur in July and August, as this is the start of the drier period in the area. According to NASA, the number of forest fires usually peaks at the beginning of September and there are almost no forest fires at the end of November.
On August 22, NASA wrote that the time must tell whether this year is burning an exceptionally large amount of forest, or whether it will be a fairly average year. The Global Forest Watch research project also does not (yet) see a record number of forest fires in the Amazon region.
See also: NASA shares satellite photos of forest fires in the Amazon rainforest
Emergency in Amazonas and dark sky in São Paulo
Incidentally, it is also incorrect that nothing is going on in the Amazon at the moment. At the beginning of August, the largest state in Brazil, Amazonas, declared a state of emergency in the south of the state due to the large number of forest fires in the region and the effect this has on air quality. NASA found that in this state indeed more forest is on fire than normal during this period of the year.
On Monday, August 19, the power cut in São Paulo and it suddenly became dark in the middle of the day in the largest city in South America. The dark sky and the power failure are, according to several local reports, caused by smoke from the fires from the Amazon. Whether this is correct is unclear. But, according to the BBC, this event is probably the reason that many social media reports suddenly appeared about the fires in the Amazon. And the day after, on August 20, at least 150,000 messages appeared on Twitter with the hashtag 'prayforamazonia'.
🌎Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it's burning from the fires * thousands * or miles away, in Rondônia or Paraguay. Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke (!). SOS🌎Avatar
How long has the Amazon been on fire?
Several messages that subsequently appeared on social media stated that the Amazon has been on fire for three weeks. This was among others in an Instagram post by footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. Data from the INPE show that although the number of times a fire is detected indeed increases, it is not true that since three weeks the Amazon has suddenly been on fire and there were no fires before. The INPE, for example, already saw 13,334 focal points in July.
In addition, there is an even more important problem with the social media messages of many celebrities, namely that the pictures that the Amazon fires should illustrate do not come at all from the fires that are raging in the Amazon this year and sometimes not even from the Amazon.
The French news agency AFP found that the photo that Cristiano Ronaldo posted came from 2013 and was taken in Brazil, but not in the Amazon. They also saw that Madonna placed a photo from 1989 in a call to the President of Brazil to better protect the Amazon. In the Netherlands, the TV program Zomer met Art used a photo of a forest fire from 2009 for a post about the Amazon fires now.
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