Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Indonesian Peat Forest Fires Big Disaster, Plus Worsening Global Warming

Viewed from space: Peat fires emit smoke on
the Indonesian island of Sumatra in September.
Image from NASA Earth Observatory. 
Bad land management practices in Indonesia, El Nino and global warming are teaming up to cause a nasty disaster in and around Indonesia, and this particular mess will actually worsen global warming a bit.

Farmers and land owners and others set fires in peat forests to clear land. Most of the land clearing is illegal, by the way.

Largely because of El Nino, that periodic warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean that's underway now, there's a drought in Indonesia.

The fires have developed into these hard to put out underground fires in peat that area really, REALLY smoky. Peat is soil consisting mostly of partly decayed plant material often found in wetlands.

Of course these Indonesian wetlands dried out in the drought, and are now ablaze.

The smoky fires blanketed the region in a thick, thick haze, causing respiratory harm in a wide area, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, as well as Indonesia.

The smoke and haze could kill, or at the very least contribute to the deaths of at least 10,000 people, making the Indonesian peat fires the deadliest disaster of 2015, notes Dr. Jeff Masters in his Weather Underground blog.

Masters also said an estimated 120,000 people have already sought medical attention because of respiratory illnesses related to the Indonesian peat fires.

The fires are also described as "carbon bombs" because they're emitting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The peat normally stores the carbon dioxide, but when it burns, it goes into the atmosphere.

Since carbon dioxide is the main gas contributing to global warming,  this is a bad thing. By some estimates, the current Indonesian peat fires are emitting as much carbon dioxide as the entire nation of Germany does in a year.

The Washington Post notes that the peat fires contribute perhaps 20 percent of the annual carbon emissions in the world.

Regular forest fires emit a lot of carbon dioxide, too. But when the trees grow back, some of that released carbon dioxide is sequestered back into the returning trees and is thus removed from the atmosphere where it can do harm.

Not so with the peat fires. The peat has been slowly accumulating for thousands of years, and once it's gone in a fire, it's gone. The released carbon dioxide just sits in the atmosphere, worsening global warming.

Here's a compilation video from Greenpeace showing the extent of the fires and the haze from these peat fires in Indonesia. It's pretty scary.

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