Governments, smart data and wildfires: where are we at?

Photo by Wikimedia
23 September 2019

The ongoing Amazon wildfires have focused media attention on forest fires but also on wildfires more generally and their link to biodiversity and habitat loss, as well as global heating.

We take a look at the some of the different types of wildfires, assess their impact and what is causing them, and why accurate, real-time data is so important for wise action to curb them.

Different types of wildfires

Did you know that wildfires occur naturally or can be started deliberately or by accident by humans? In some parts of the world, such as Indonesia and Brazil, forest fires have been started deliberately to make way for oil palm and soy bean plantations, or pasture for cattle—all in the name of alleviating poverty, creating economic wealth, and jobs or, mistakenly, food security.

Forest fires on peatlands are particularly worrisome in terms of global heating—they release far more CO2 into the atmosphere than other forest fires and are extremely difficult to detect and extinguish. Some of the largest peatlands are in Malaysia and Indonesia. The occurrence of fires is low under undisturbed conditions, but rapid land use changes—deforestation and peatland conversion or drainage—are leading to increased frequency of wildfires and peatland fires. This is especially the case on the island of Borneo (73 per cent of which is part of Indonesia).

UNEP’s Data Strategy

UNEP’s Data Strategy, Long-term Trends and Future. Image taken from environmentlive.unep.org/situation

On many days during the 2015 fires in Indonesia, the daily emission rates from the fires exceeded that of fossil fuel emissions in the United States. They caused an international outcry to which the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners responded by establishing the Global Peatlands Initiative.

“The peatland fires in Indonesia in 2015 affected the health of millions of people and became a world environmental disaster. Since then, Indonesia has made tremendous efforts to protect and sustainably manage their peatlands, including most recently, leading the way towards the United Nations Environmental Assembly resolution on the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Peatlands,” says UNEP peatlands expert Dianna Kopansky.

Crop fires are usually started deliberately. They exacerbate air pollution and have damaging health consequences.

In Africa, wildfires on savannah grasslands are generally a natural phenomenon, and can be beneficial for ecosystems. Elsewhere when vegetation catches fire, the danger is that it may spread to forests or human settlements.

Continue reading the full article at UN Environment.

For further information, please contact Pascal Peduzzi or Dianna Kopansky.


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