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Dec 16th 2019

Amazon Forest Fires: Ecological Impact Demands Innovation

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The Amazon is burning, with more than 10,000 square miles alight across both Brazil and Bolivia. As noted by Time, the destruction is clearly evident from space — satellites and astronauts are watching the Amazon forest fires, “sending back images of white smoke from the burning jungle streaming east over the Atlantic—pictures that would be beautiful if their implications weren’t so ugly.”

And while ongoing coverage highlights specific aspects of this environmental disaster, prioritizing the bigger picture is problematic in a world of curated messaging, crunchy soundbites and continually-churning news stories.

From fundamental ecological importance to long-term global impact, here’s why the Amazon blaze demands our attention — and how innovations in firefighting technology could help manage future disasters at scale.

Supply and Demand

It’s often repeated but isn’t true: The Amazon does not produce 20% of the world’s oxygen. Instead, the rainforest is responsible for something even more important: According to National Geographic, it “contributes around 20 percent of the oxygen produced by photosynthesis on land.” Most of this oxygen supply is consumed by the trees, plants and micro-organisms of the Amazon itself — with more than 80,000 known plant species living in the rainforest, this self-sustaining oxygen mechanism is critical for their survival.

The Amazon is also an in-demand habitat for approximately 10% of all species worldwide, including more than 2.5 million insect types, 3,000 species of fish and over 400 mammal species. Nutrients produced by biological processes help sustain the forest, even as it provides shelter, hunting and breeding grounds for these animals.

Loss of rainforest real estate forces significant ecological shifts that could result in substantial population shifts or large-scale extinction of plant and animal species — species that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

Conservation of Energy

Beyond the loss of habitat and species, growing Amazon forest fires represent a substantial ecological threat: massive carbon release.

In a recent interview with The Harvard Gazette, Amazon expert Brian Farrell, director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, noted that “the Amazon’s storage of carbon is substantial enough to change the world climate if it were released into the atmosphere.” For Farrell, if fires continue to burn out of control, the potential for massive carbon outflux makes this “a local problem of global significance.”

According to The Conversation, continued deforestation due to deliberately-set and natural wildfires can also cause local climate change. Recent research found that “disturbed” forest areas experienced annual temperature increases of 0.44 degrees Celsius more than neighboring intact forests, which “equates to approximately half of the warming seen in the region over the last 60 years.” This problem is more pronounced in the dry season, when temperature differences of 1.5 degrees were observed between intact and disturbed forests. Along with failing tree populations as temperatures exceed their tolerances, small-scale agriculture will become significantly more difficult for local indigenous groups.

Manipulation, Mitigation and Migration

While the scope and severity of Amazon forest fires is daunting, new firefighting technologies could help limit the impact of similar blazes next year or manage other large-scale disasters. Current areas of innovation include:

  • Data Manipulation: Government agencies can use technologies like IoT-enabled sensors and smartphones, orbiting satellites and short-range drones to create more accurate models of fire intensity, impact and potential expansion. This could allow firefighting teams to better coordinate their efforts and limit overall spread.
  • Digital Mitigation: Advanced robotics may soon make it possible to directly fight fires with reduced risk to human lives. Work on high-powered drones that can carry heavy water hoses and fight fires at night is already underway, while humanoid robot technologies such as Walk-Man offer the potential to both douse fires directly and send data back to emergency personnel. Physical firefighting gear is also getting an upgrade with devices like the C-Thru — a futuristic helmet that provides digitally-projected room temperature, oxygen and carbon dioxide data along with thermal imaging cameras to provide sight lines through heavy smoke.
  • Orbital Migration: As noted by Scientific American, space-based solutions may help post-fire rainforest recovery. For example, fertilizer developed for use on the ISS could be used to spur plant regrowth in the Amazon — designed with a polymer coating for slow release of nutrients and reduced run-off, it could help replace critical plant life with causing a secondary ecological collapse. Also a potential option? Controlled growth in orbital facilities until ground conditions stabilize. The highly-regulated nature of orbital environments allows precise delivery of nutrients, water and light, allowing them to act as effective incubators of critical Amazon species until we (hopefully) restore some semblance of order.

Disaster of Scale

The Amazon is burning.

It’s a disaster of scale and substance, one that carries serious implications for the future of both local ecosystems and our environment at large. From massive carbon sinks to missing species, this rainforest removal presents a real risk for Earth. While widespread shifts in government policy and human perception are critical for long-term improvement, continued innovation of firefighting technology could help limit the immediate impact of Amazon forest fires.

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