Tracking Amazon Fires

Last year saw an uptick in fire activity in the Amazon basin. This year a new tool has been released that aims to help classify the fires being observed. The Amazon Dashboard classifies each fire as a deforestation fire, a savanna fire, a small clearing and agricultural fire, or an understory forest fire, and tracks whether the fire is in a protected or indigenous territory. NASA Earth Observatory:

The fire analysis tool is already bringing new clarity and insight to the 2020 fire season. In July, Brazil announced a 120-day ban on fires in the Amazon rainforest; it was presented as an effort to limit ecological damage from fires this year. However, the NASA-led fire analysis indicates that there has been a proliferation of fires in key deforestation hotspots in the southern Amazon states of Pará, Mato Grosso, and Amazonas.

Previously: Mapping the Amazon Fires.

Mapping the Amazon Fires

Let’s start with the current situation map from Brazil’s own space agency, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espacias (INPE), which I’m surprised is still online. In July Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, accused the widely respected agency of lying about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon; INPE’s chief, Ricardo Galvão, was forced out earlier this month after defending the agency. After that, INPE said that fires were up 84 percent over the same period last year. (The ESA, for its part, tracked nearly four times as many fires in August as they did last year.)

Other raw data sources include the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), fire activity data from which can be viewed here; and MODIS data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. For a live feed of MODIS data on the Amazon fires, see the MODIS Wildfire Dashboard.


Meanwhile, NASA’s Earth Observatory posted MODIS imagery of several Amazon fires, and had this curious statement that seemed to minimize the scale of the problem: “As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years. […] Though activity appears to be above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia, it has so far appeared below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database, a research project that compiles and analyzes NASA data.”

A subsequent NASA Earth Observatory post seems to contradict the one I mentioned earlier, pointing to “a noticeable increase in large, intense, and persistent fires burning along major roads in the central Brazilian Amazon” which “are more consistent with land clearing than with regional drought” and noted fire detections “higher across the Brazilian Amazon” since 2010.

Contextualizing the amount of fires seems to be a recurring theme in the reporting: the number of fires are up sharply over last year, but close to the average when taking a longer view. It’s helped a lot of bad and insincere actors make it harder to get to the heart of what’s going on over there. They can’t, after all, deny the satellite imagery or the remote sensing: we can see the fires. We can detect the emissions of smoke, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (1, 2, 3). We can map them. And those maps can help us understand what’s going on.

On the NGO front, InfoAmazonia has produced the above map comparing fires over the last 24 hours with historical fire data. (They have other maps on this subject as well.)

Note, too, the reference above to burning along major roads. Tim Wallace crunches MODIS date from 2012 onward and teases out some patterns in the fires.

The New York Times

And the New York Times, where Tim used to work, has a map correlating the position of the current Amazon fires along the edges of past deforestation. The Times also has maps showing maps on a month-by-month basis and comparing August 2019 with the August average over the past decade.

[CityLab, Maps Mania]

‘Counter-Mapping’ the Amazon

Samuel Fritz, “The Marañon or Amazon River with the Mission of the Society of Jesus,” 1707. Map, 31×39 cm. National Library of Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

The Conversation has a piece on how indigenous peoples in the Amazon are using “counter-mapping” to reclaim not only their ancestral lands, but as a way to counter the colonial process of mapmaking itself.

Maps have always been part of the imposition of power over colonised peoples. While map-making might be thought of as “objective”, it is fundamentally political, a necessary part of controlling a territory. Maps inscribe borders, which are then used to include some and exclude others.

During a late 19th-century rubber boom, Amazonia became increasingly well mapped out as the young nations of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia vied for territorial control. The rights and interests of Amazonian peoples were never included in this process and they would be continually denied rights, recognition and citizenship from these nations until the 1980s and 1990s. Even following legal recognition, their territorial rights—critical for their continued existence—are still often ignored in practice.

These marginalised people are now working together to reclaim the process of mapping itself. In the central Brazilian Amazon there has been a recent flurry of “counter-mapping”, used by forest peoples to contest the very state maps that initially failed to recognise their ancestral territorial rights.


Predicting Future Malaria Outbreaks from Satellite Data

Data from NASA’s earth-observing satellites is being used to predict future malaria outbreaks in the Amazon rainforests of Peru. To be sure, as the above video shows, this is really about taking geospatial and remote sensing data from several different sources and correlating them to build a predictive model: it’s John Snow’s cholera map at large scale and for the satellite age.