Last update: October 21st, 2019 at 9:00 am
Dozens of fires accompanied by heavy plumes of gray smoke were burning across the island of New Guinea in late September 2015. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this true-color image of Southern New Guinea on September 24. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS’s thermal bands, are outlined in red. Most of the smoke rising from these hot spots are blowing towards the northwest. Given the time of year and the widespread location of these fires, they are likely primarily agricultural in origin; however, some may have escaped control and become wildfires.
According to a feature story published online by NASA on April 30, 2009 on the interaction between climate and fires in Asia, “human activities in this area of the world have contributed to the growing fire emissions issue. Palm oil is increasingly grown for use as a cooking oil and biofuel, while also replacing trans fats in processed foods. It has become the most widely produced edible oil in the world, and production has swelled in recent years to surpass that of soybean oil.
The environmental effects of such growth have been significant. Land has to be cleared to grow the crop, and the preferred method is fire. The clearing often occurs in drained peatlands that are otherwise swampy forests where the remains of past plant life have been submerged for centuries in as much as 60 feet of water. Peat material in Borneo, for example, stores the equivalent of about nine years worth of global fossil fuel emissions. Indonesia has become the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after the United States and China, due primarily to these fire emissions. With an extended dry season, the peat surface dries out, catches fire, and the lack of rainfall can keep the fires going for months.”
It also should be noted that 2015 has been quite a severe El Nino year. The lack of rain and increasing warmth in this region as a result of El Nino may contribute to a greater outbreak in wildfires.