Amazon fires: Record number burning in Brazil rainforest

Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has seen a record number of fires this year, new space agency data suggests.

The National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) said its satellite data showed an 84% increase on the same period in 2018.

It comes weeks after President Jair Bolsonaro sacked the head of the agency amid rows over its deforestation data.

The largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming.

It is also home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people.

Conservationists have blamed Mr. Bolsonaro for the Amazon’s plight, saying he has encouraged loggers and farmers to clear the land, and scientists say the rainforest has suffered losses at an accelerated rate since he took office in January.

Brazil Amazon fires graph

Meanwhile, US space agency Nasa said that overall fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average this year.

The agency said that while activity had increased in Amazonas and Rondonia, it had decreased in the states of Mato Grosso and Pará.

It was earlier reported that a blackout on Monday in the city of São Paulo – more than 2,700km (1,700 miles) away – had been caused by smoke from the Amazon fires.

But some meteorologists say the smoke came from major fires burning in Paraguay, which is much closer to the city and not in the Amazon region.

Why are there fires in the Amazon?

Wildfires often occur in the dry season in Brazil but they are also deliberately started in efforts to illegally deforest land for cattle ranching.

Inpe said it had detected more than 74,000 fires between January and August – the highest number since records began in 2013. It said it had observed more than 9,500 forest fires since Thursday, mostly in the Amazon region.

Brazil Amazon map

In comparison, there are slightly more than 40,000 in the same period of 2018, it said. However, the worst recent year was 2016, with more than 68,000 fires in that period.

The satellite images showed Brazil’s most northern state, Roraima, covered in dark smoke, while neighbouring Amazonas declared an emergency over the fires.

Mr Bolsonaro brushed off the latest data, saying it was the “season of the queimada”, when farmers use fire to clear land. “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame,” he was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

Later he appeared to suggest that non-governmental organisations had set fires, as revenge for his government slashing their funding. He presented no evidence and gave no names to support this theory, saying there were “no written records about the suspicions”.

“So, there could be…, I’m not affirming it, criminal action by these ‘NGOers’ to call attention against my person, against the government of Brazil. This is the war that we are facing,” he said in a Facebook Live on Wednesday.

An aerial view of a tract of Amazon jungle burning as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near the city of Novo Progresso, Para state.Image copyrightREUTERSImage captionInpe said it had detected more than 72,000 fires so far this year

Inpe noted that the number of fires was not in line with those normally reported during the dry season.

“There is nothing abnormal about the climate this year or the rainfall in the Amazon region, which is just a little below average,” Inpe researcher Alberto Setzer told Reuters.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a National Soccer Day Ceremony in BrasiliaImage copyrightREUTERSImage captionMr Bolsonaro has been criticised over his environmental policies
“The dry season creates the favourable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident.”

Ricardo Mello, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Amazon Programme, said the fires were “a consequence of the increase in deforestation seen in recent figures”.

Why is Bolsonaro being criticised?

The reports of a rise in forest fires come amid criticism over Mr Bolsonaro’s environmental policies. Scientists say the Amazon has suffered losses at an accelerated rate since the president took office in January, with policies favouring development over conservation.

Over the past decade, previous governments had managed to reduce deforestation with action by federal agencies and a system of fines. But Mr Bolsonaro and his ministers have criticised the penalties and overseen a fall in confiscations of timber and convictions for environmental crimes.

Last month, the far-right president accused Inpe’s director of lying about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon and trying to undermine the government. It came after Inpe published data showing an 88% increase in deforestation there in June compared to the same month a year ago.

The director of the agency later announced that he was being sacked amid the row.

Inpe has previously insisted that its data is 95% accurate. The agency’s reliability has also been defended by several scientific institutions, including the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

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2018 versus 2019: Florida’s water crisis idle, but not over

Image source: Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Memorandum, Caloosahatchee & Estuary Condition Report released June 11, 2019

Here we are, living out a beautiful Florida summer—one that’s defined by our iconic vibrant water, reports of incredible fishing, and the return of visitors to our beaches.

Thoughts of last year’s “lost summer” are but a distant memory. We breathe a sigh of relief, but clean water now doesn’t mean the problems have been resolved and the same threats that destroyed our water still remain.

Why is our water quality vastly different this year? What’s being done to prevent future disasters? In this post, we’ll look back at a few of the factors that contributed to the 2018 water crisis, how things were different in 2019, and future prevention efforts.

Disclaimer: This information is intended to illustrate that 1) Florida’s water quality issues are multi-faceted, 2) the sequence of variables that affect water quality is ever-changing, and 3) there is a solution.

There is not a singular cause of our water quality issues. In 2018, Florida experienced a chain of worst-case events, circumstances, and actions, that led to a disasterous situation for estuaries around the state. Some factors are within control, some are uncontrollable, and some are consequential, but combined, they all impact our water quality. The better you understand this relational concept, the better-suited you are to form your own opinions and perspectives on future issues.

A Look Back

In July 2018, we were neck-deep in the worst water crisis Florida has arguably ever experienced. Record rainfall, massive discharges of polluted fresh water, and a questionably-motivated water management district, all combined to help fuel this widespread water quality disaster.

Toxic blue-green sludge suffocated our waterways and red tide lingered for months, leaving dead marine life scattered along 300 miles of Florida coastline. Businesses suffered, vacations were cut short and cancelled, residents feared for their health, and Florida made national headlines—and not in a good way.

Just to name a few. While there are still many issues impacting water quality around the state, the magnitude to which our waters improved in a year is astounding. To better understand the 2018 water crisis versus a year of relatively good water, here is a chart highlighting a few key factors that collectively impacted our water quality.

2018 and 2019 Key Factors Impacting Water Quality

South Florida Water Management District

  • The powerful, tax-levying agency responsible for protecting and managing our water resources.


Governing board serving special interests.

The previous governing board made decisions that favored special interests over the public, such as renewing a lease with Florida Crystals for land slated for the EAA Reservoir.

Public outrage prompted a spotlight on their actions and the demand for their resignations.


Governing board serving the public.

A new board was appointed as a result of public demand and is now made up of individuals who share our concerns, making significant strides to protect our water quality.

Rainfall Levels
Fort Myers levels shown as sample

  • Rainfall directly affects the water level in Lake Okeechobee.
  • Florida rainy season is May through October.


Above average rainfall.

12.77 ” in May (normal 2.64″)

Lake levels jumped 6 feet in 2017, largely due to Hurricane Irma, followed by heavy rainfall in May 2018.



Average rainfall.

5.57” in May

Brought no significant or unexpected water level changes.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Water management strategy

  • Attempts to keep Lake Okeechobee level between 12.5 to 15.5 feet.
  • Currently manages lake level by discharging “excess” water to the coast via Caloosahatchee & St. Lucie Rivers.
  • Water is discharged at a rate measured in cubic feet per second (cfs).
  • 500 to 1,000 cfs = desired flow for Caloosahatchee River, needed to balance salinity.
  • 0 cfs = desired flow for St. Lucie River.


Began high-volume discharges June 1, continued through summer.

3,000 to 7,800 cfs to Caloosahatchee
Up to 1,800 cfs to St. Lucie

Heavy rainfall and high lake levels, combined with a fear of more rain, led to massive discharges throughout the summer.

2,800 cfs is the high-flow “ecological harm threshold” established by water managers for the Caloosahatchee.

USACOE later admits to knowingly releasing water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers containing toxic cyanobacteria and harmful algal blooms.


Began low-volume discharges in February, minimized need for high-volume discharges during rainy season.

1,500 to 1,800 cfs to Caloosahatchee
250 to 500 cfs to St. Lucie

Low rainfall and low lake levels maintained by low-volume releases, mitigated need for high-volume summer discharges.

Blue-green algal blooms visible on Lake Okeechobee, but no visible cyanobacteria at sample testing sites. The lower rate of discharges has helped prevent toxic algae from reaching the coastal estuaries.

Red Tide
Known as Karenia brevis (K. brevis)

  • A naturally-occuring algal bloom that originates offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Depletes oxygen in the water and releases toxins that kill marine life and may cause illness to humans.
  • Sustained by nutrients from pollution sources.


Significant presence of red tide.

Originated in October 2017 and persisted for 17 months.

Devastated marine life, killing thousands of tons of baitfish, game fish, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, even a whale shark.

Red tide bloom was possibly intensified and sustained by nutrients from toxic blue-green algal blooms.


No presence of red tide.

As of February 2019, the presence of red tide has been non-existent at sample testing sites.

Lake Okeechobee Water Levels

Below is a graphic representation of the Lake Okeechobee water levels from July 2017 to July 2019. This illustrates the significant water level spike after Hurricane Irma in October 2017, followed by the heavy rainfall event in May 2018 that led to the high-volume, devastating discharges.

Captains For Clean Water - Lake O Levels

The Water Crisis Brings Progress in 2019

  • Florida received the largest amount of funding for Everglades restoration in state history. This means there’s a significant spotlight on water quality issues and efforts; from media to conservation groups to the informed public eye, this creates an arena where elected officials and government agencies are held accountable.
  • New Lake Okeechobee management manual coming soon. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has shown willingness to change their operations procedures in order to avoid harmful, large-scale discharges and is in the process of developing the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). “The purpose of this effort is to reevaluate and define operations for the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule that take into account additional infrastructure that will soon be operational.” Expected completion of the manual is September 2022.
  • Key priority projects. There are more than two dozen projects that must be accelerated and completed in order to provide improvements to water quality, water quantity, and water supply for Florida. Collectively, these will help achieve the greatest benefit for Everglades restoration. The projects are detailed on SFWMD’s website.

The Big Picture: We Must Send Clean Water South

Infrastructure projects, operating manuals, record budget, various agencies and stakeholders, policy and procedures, bureaucratic complexity, outward opposition, emails, paperwork, approvals, denials, meetings upon meetings; the path to progress is littered with red tape. For every step forward, it took countless people and calculated actions to get there.

It’s not realistic to think that the southward flow of water can be restored overnight, but every project completed gets us incrementally closer. Progress is a process. It requires a vigilant public who speaks up and takes action which drives political will that turns to policy, which becomes new law which eventually leads to the benefits that we all want to see: clean water and healthy estuaries at all times.

Changing operations alone won’t fix the problems. We need critical infrastructure projects completed in order to store, treat, and convey more water south. The EAA Reservoir is predicted to cut Lake Okeechobee discharges by over 50%. The Tamiami Trail project will remove significant barriers to flow, allowing more water to reach the Everglades and Florida Bay where it’s desperately needed. We can’t simply cross our fingers and hope the rain won’t come.

Closing Thoughts

It begins to sound redundant, almost, to keep repeating this message. The truth is—for decades, scientists have said the solution is to send water south. So why weren’t we seeing progress at the highest level? The difference between now and then is awareness.

A lack of public awareness has historically allowed special interests and corrupt politics to dictate where our water goes—or doesn’t go. The 2016 and 2018 water crises may have sparked national attention, but it’s because we’ve refused to “shut up” that we’ve been able to keep the focus on water quality and move the needle.

This progress is only possible because of you. Without your efforts to get involved, get educated, and spread the word, the smoke and mirrors would continue, and the greater public would remain oblivious to the injustice happening in our backyards.

Thank you for seeing the bigger picture. For understanding the process. And for spreading the word about Everglades restoration—even when the water is beautiful and the fishing is good.