Wednesday, January 22

A blazing and blistering year

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File photo shows hazy conditions in Kuching in September.

WE have all felt the heat this year but not as much as those who do not work or live in areas of our world where air conditioning does not occur. Perhaps we live too comfortably and are getting spoiled! Recently and more regularly in the last decade, Sarawak, Singapore, and Peninsular Malaysia have experienced the effects of forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra as plumes of particle ridden smoke have created haze. This last September, this pollution reached critical levels in Kuching thus forcing schools to close, with medical advice to citizens to stay behind closed doors and windows. I dread to think how many potentially productive hours were lost to absenteeism from work and students’ education.

For the 25 years I have been visiting and even working in Borneo, the very word ‘haze’ has become synonymous with fear. This haze word appeared in the 17th or 18th centuries, but its true origin is almost as obscure as its presence in obstructing our vision. What we do know is that it is caused by the burning of undergrowth and forests in attempts to clear land originally in remote ‘slash and burn’ agricultural communities. Today, with much disdain, it is related to large scale land clearance for commercial crop production.

Nasa image shows smoke covering Borneo in September.

Burning off the stubble left by harvested grain crops in the UK’s wheat or barley fields or the rice fields in Southeast Asia is nothing new and is referred to as ‘swidden’ agriculture. Today, such practices are banned in the UK and the stubble is deeply ploughed back into the soil. However, in bleak moorland areas of the UK, undesirable vegetation, such as bracken, is burnt off to allow the regeneration of new heather (Calluna vulgaris) and upland grazing grasses the following year. New grass growth is needed for upland sheep and highland cattle farming and new heather shoots as the source of food for game birds such as grouse. Organised shoots of game birds provide an extra source of income for upland farmers.

A blaze a week

From the autumn of 2018 and throughout 2019, never a week seems to have passed without a media report of a forest fire burning out of control in either hemisphere. Some fires have been naturally caused by lightning strikes, some deliberately through mischief-makers, and others through attempts to clear land for agricultural purposes.

Climate change, increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events, also plays its part in this. I would even go as far as saying that what we have considered as extreme weather events are the norm for us to expect now and in the future. The coldest year in the future is likely to be warmer than the hottest year in the past.

Our memories of past heatwaves associated with forest fires are somewhat fickle. Have we already forgotten the forest fires raging in California and Spain in the autumn of 2018, when thousands of hectares of forests and scrubland went up in smoke? Homes were destroyed, human and animal lives lost, and vast sums of money expended over weeks of firefighting.

Heatwaves have hit European and the Arctic Circle countries from June to August this year, with temperatures rising to record levels in each of those months. As I write, this year is on course to be the hottest five-year period since records began in 1880. Northern Catalonia, in Spain has seen 20,000ha of scrubland and forests destroyed by fire. Attempts to bring the fires under control were hampered by high wind speeds and temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius. Thousands of sheep, goats, and animals died and people lost their homes to the furnace. Similar forest fires broke out in southern France, where an all-time heat record was set at 45.9 degrees Celsius. Such tinder-like conditions merely exacerbate forest fires.

A fire engine drives past the flames as the fire front approaches homes at Nabiac, some 350km north of Sydney, on Nov 15.
— AFP photo

Towards the end of last July, the Arctic Circle saw satellite images showing massive plumes of smoke from forest fires raging from Siberia to Alaska and Greenland. In June alone, these fires produced 55 megatons of carbon dioxide. In these northern latitudes, peat fires are becoming more frequent as the permafrost thaws out at an ever-increasing rate and the once frozen peat is exposed and dries out, thus releasing embedded carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Equator and Southern continents

The summit of the World Nations Group of 20 countries at their Osaka, Japan, meeting earlier this year highlighted the problem of the increasing depletion of the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil and its neighbouring countries. There, farmers have used the dry season from July to November to fire the undergrowth once the trees are felled for the lumber industry. The number of forest fires this year has risen by 85 per cent over last year’s figure. Already a fifth of this rainforest has been destroyed and July this year saw 7,700 square km of eastern Bolivia and another 367 square km in northern Paraguay go up in smoke. Much of the cleared forest is now used for cattle ranching, rubber plantations, soya bean production, and mining operations.

Whilst the world has focussed on the Amazonian and Bornean rainforest fires, little attention has been paid to the fires in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. In one day last August, there were 7,000 fires in Angola and another 3,400 in the DRC compared with 2,000 in Brazil. The rainy seasons in Africa are getting forever shorter with inevitably increased brush fires in the Sahel and southern Africa. Slash and burn methods of forest clearance are very common in such countries where only 5 per cent of the land is cultivated by using tractors. At the current rate of deforestation in central Africa, it is estimated that the Congo Basin rainforest will have completely disappeared by 2099.

To date, as midsummer is approaching in Australia, bush fires in Queensland and New South Wales have been fanned by 97km per hour winds in severe drought and low humidity conditions which have existed for the last three years. A summer of destruction in tinder-like conditions was forecast for this year and in October birds fell dead out of the sky as walls of fire devoured the Australian bush north of Sydney. The city has been blanketed by smoke, with air quality at hazardous levels this week.

Nearer to home

Kalimantan and Sumatra have seen forest fires spreading to peat soils thus releasing huge volumes of carbon dioxide. Peat fires are exceedingly difficult to extinguish as we have seen near Miri. This choking haze has created spectacular red sunsets in Sumatra, caused by the dispersal of sunlight by the smoke which filters short wavelengths of visible light and releases longer wavelengths in the orange to red spectrums.

Undoubtedly heatwaves exacerbate the dryness of vegetation and, alas, these are occurring more frequently and with increasing intensity worldwide as climate change bites more deeply. Generally, the burning of vegetation means a loss of our planet’s natural lungs for the absorption of carbon dioxide and the release of oxygen, for nature’s carbon store is lost. As more carbon dioxide is released into our atmosphere so we will continue to get even hotter. Global biodiversity loss is with us and will not disappear overnight unless nations sort out the problems in their own backyards sooner, for later will be too late. A global concerted effort is immediately needed but how?