El Niño primed Indonesia for an intense fire season

Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory features smoke from fires burning on the island of Borneo, in the Indonesian provinces of South and Central Kalimantan.

“After several years of comparatively quiet fire seasons, Indonesia saw the return of intense, smoky fires in 2023. The blazes have been exacerbated by dry conditions made worse this year by the return of El Niño,” said NASA.

The image was acquired on October 2, 2023 by the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) sensor on NASA’s Terra satellite. So far, fires have burned more than 660,000 acres since the beginning of this year. 

“Burning in Indonesia often begins as farmers clear land for crops or grazing animals,” explained NASA. “Fire that escapes control in Borneo and Sumatra can become difficult to extinguish because of the islands’ large deposits of peat – a soil-like mixture of partly decayed plant material that can fuel smoldering fires for months.”

“Fires generally correspond with Indonesia’s dry season, which runs from June into December, with fire activity peaking from August into October. This year, scientists think that the natural climate phenomenon El Niño has made the landscape even drier, priming it to burn.”

“During El Niño years, rain that is normally centered over Indonesia and the far western Pacific shifts eastward into the central Pacific, causing parts of Indonesia to experience drought.”

NASA and Columbia University scientist Robert Field noted that this El Niño has maybe been delayed in drying out the main burning regions. “But it is the simplest explanation for the drying, along with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole to the west.”

Josh Willis, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, agrees that El Niño has likely played a role in the dry conditions across Indonesia. 

“Just because it’s not a huge El Niño doesn’t mean it’s not causing impacts, especially in the tropics,” said Willis. “Indonesia is close to the ocean regions that are the warmest in the world during a neutral or La Niña year. During an El Niño year, even a moderate one, those areas typically dry out.”

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 

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