By analysing nearly a decade of satellite data, a team of scientists has created a model that can successfully predict the severity and geographic distribution of fires in the Amazon rain forest and the rest of South America months in advance.
Though previous research has shown that human settlement patterns are the primary factor that drives the distribution of fires in the Amazon, the new research demonstrates that environmental factors – specifically small variations in ocean temperatures – amplify human impacts and underpin much of the variability in the number of fires the region experiences from one year to the next.
The researchers believe that unusually warm sea surface temperatures cause regional precipitation patterns to shift north in the southern Amazon during the wet season. “The result is that soils don’t get fully saturated. Months later, humidity and rainfall levels decline, and the vegetation becomes drier and more flammable,” said one of the study’s authors.