A new study led by Swansea University highlights the destructive impacts of human development on tropical rainforests. In recent decades, human disturbance across Indonesian forests has made increasingly large parts of the region more vulnerable to fires.
The researchers found that on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, less than 10 percent of the remaining forest is still fire-resistant as a result of deforestation.
“Undisturbed tropical rainforests are naturally resistant to fire due to the humid and cool micro-climate they maintain, effectively acting as a fire barrier,” explained study lead author Dr. Tadas Nikonovas.
“Contrary to the widely-held perception that worsening droughts are threatening the remaining rainforests, tropical forests in Indonesia become susceptible to fire only after human disturbance.”
According to the researchers, protecting what is left of the undisturbed forest is crucial for preventing catastrophic fire. In this region, deforestation increases the risk of recurring peatland fires that produce toxic haze events across South East Asia and release globally significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenpeace reports that the area of tropical forest and peatland that has burned in Indonesia over the past five years is larger than the size of the Netherlands.
The new research shows that there are still some contiguous areas of undisturbed forests that are not susceptible to burning – even under current drought conditions. These areas, however, make up less than ten percent of the tropical forest cover.
The study reveals that more than 90 percent of Indonesia’s forest cover has been severely fragmented or degraded, and is no longer able to maintain a fire-resistant microclimate. Only three percent of the region’s peatlands, which store massive amounts of carbon, are now protected by fire-resistant forest cover.
The researchers emphasize that the preventative role of tropical forests against fire is yet another important reason for the preservation and regeneration of the few remaining contiguous tracts of forests.
“Protecting tropical forest is critical not only for biodiversity and carbon storage but also for preventing future catastrophic fire episodes,” said project leader Dr. Allan Spessa. “This is true for Indonesia, as well as for tropical forest in Africa and South America.”
The study is published in the journal Communications Earth and Environment.