The Pantanal wetlands are one of the world’s most bio-diverse ares, and more than 15,000 fires are currently destroying the critical ecosystem.
Images and data collected by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research shows 15,756 fires burning in the Pantanal, more than three times the number of fires detected in 2019.
According to Brazil’s National Centre for the Prevention of Forest Fires (Prevfogo), an estimated 2.9m hectares of the Pantanal have been destroyed by fire this year. The states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Mato Grosso have each declared a state of emergency as the fires spread, putting more and more in danger.
As the BBC reports, the Pantanal, is home to “jaguars, piranhas, capuchin monkeys, green anacondas and thousands of plant species.”
Typically, heavy rains in the region have led to mass floods, which support a diverse network of flora and fauna.
With the fires destroying habitats, food, and boiling or polluting any remaining sources of water, the animals are dying of starvation and thirst.
“From October to March, floodwaters fill the Pantanal like a giant reservoir and drain out slowly between April and September, providing ideal aquatic habitat, nutrient renewal, and flood control for millions of people downstream,” reports the World Wildlife Fund.
However, the beginning of the dry season in July and August marked a spike in fire activity.
“One analysis of NASA and NOAA satellite observations by the nonprofit Instituto Centro de Vida reported 4,200 hotspots in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso in August 2020,” reports NASA Earth Observatory. “That compares to 71 in August 2018 and 184 in August 2019.”
Not since 2005 have fires in the region been this destructive. That year, blazes covered 4,600 square kilometers in the Pantanal.
“That is an extraordinary amount—more than 10 percent of the Pantanal—and we still have several weeks to go until the start of the wet season,” said Douglas Morton, chief of the biospheric sciences branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “The Pantanal has had fires before, but what is happening this year is extreme and unprecedented in the satellite era.”
Many of these fires were started naturally, when lightning strikes dry trees and grass, but many have also been started by ranchers tying to level forests and brush to make room for livestock.
As the CBC reports, it may be a while before we understand how many animals have died in the fires, but experts expect a staggering death toll.
“We’ve never dealt with fire conditions so big, so severe,” said Pantenal resident Angelo Rabelo. “We’re just not prepared to confront it.”
Rabelo made his home in the Pantanal 37 years ago as a police colonel responsible for bringing down poachers. He has since created an environmental advocacy group called Instituto Homem Pantaneiro.
“I feel impotent and defeated,” he said. “It’s a deep pain.”
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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.