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  • Victoria Cornelio

Forest Fires and Melting Glaciers in South America

Glaciers in Patagonia are melting at an alarming rate and forest fires are raging - with greater frequency and intensity - from the Amazon to Argentina, threatening the health and living conditions of the region’s animal, plant, and human populations. With so much ecological change in motion, we are en route to seeing a total reshape of the continent. This article will lay out and unpack two of the principle symptoms of a changing climate in the region: forest fires and melting glaciers.

Climate Change

Forest Fires

From the Amazon rainforest to the temperate forests of Patagonia, some of the world’s most spectacular forests can be found across the continent of South America. By 21st February 2022, 800,000 hectares of land had been burned by the wildfires in Argentina. For some time, people hoped the upcoming wet season would help firefighters in stopping the spread. In reality the wildfires have destroyed farms, pastures, and biodiverse habitats.

The region had suffered extreme heat and drought during the weeks leading up to the fires, and this created the conditions for it to spread, despite coordinated efforts to control them. A resident of the region said: “This is atypical, historic. It’s never happened. We’ve never lived something like this” (Ayala, 2022).

Amazonian Forest Fire

Why are they happening?

Severe droughts and heatwaves made more extreme by climate change have been affecting South America for years now, and they are caused by a changing climate and prescribed burns. The Atmosphere Monitoring Service (AMS) reports that, due to the dry weather conditions, fire season began earlier than usual in January, , and with more intensity than usual, in countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. These forest fires are linked to the La Nina climate phenomenon, a weather event which has always affected the Pacific Ocean but has been exacerbated by climate change; causing extreme weather conditions and, in the case of Argentina, has aided the spread of wildfires. La Nina produces dry weather by reducing precipitation and borderline drought conditions combined with increased trade wind patterns; this results in wildfires that are near-on impossible to control.

La Niña and El niño

One location hit hard by the fires has been the Ibera National Park, which was established in 2018 as part of a project to Rewild Argentina, where conservationists worked to relocate reintroduced species such as river otters and macaws. During the fires, 60% of the park burned down and - despite the efforts of rescue teams - many animals didn’t survive after the high levels of smoke inhalation, whilst other animals could not find refuge from the fire and perished. However, hopes that the park will make a full recovery are high, and this is because the rewilding project has made the region more resilient by providing a healthy ecosystem through “the re-introduction of species (flora and fauna) that went extinct in the region and by augmenting the populations of those species that have survived but with greatly reduced numbers'' (Rewilding Project, 2022). In spite of the amazing rewilding efforts, the fires also ripped through soil that - given its essential role in agriculture and farming, is jeopardising many people’s food security. Furthermore, people’s health is at risk as they are more prone to illnesses resulting from smoke inhalation.

The fires did not only impact Argentina but neighbouring countries to the north, such as Paraguay, which was covered in a blanket of smoke and citizens were advised to stay home to avoid breathing in the miasma. The density of the smoke brought darkness over the city. And this happened days after Paraguay had its own forest fires which scorched not just forests but livestock too. Paraguay is home to the second largest forest in South America, covering 46.5% of its land and housing over 10,000 flora species and more than 1700 fauna species.

Forest fires have become more damaging and frequent throughout the years, especially in the Amazon Rainforest. This biome covers Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. A scientist from Conservation International explained in his study that “while the frequency of fires has varied over the past 20 years due to droughts and deforestation, these blazes have had a devastating cumulative effect on biodiversity in the Amazon” (Roehrdanz, 2021). Harvard University scientists, Professor Marcia Castro, found that in July 2020, there was an increase of 55.6% of the average number of fires compared to July 2010-2019. This resulted in more than 13,000 km2 of the Amazon burning in the first seven months of 2020, which is equal to eight times the size of London. The Amazon is a key player in regulating global warming and fighting climate change, because it “pulls the most important greenhouse gas from the air and puts it in storage. It transpires water, creating clouds that carry moisture around the world. It provides ecological services and is home to much of the world’s biodiversity,” (Amazon Aid Foundation, 2022).

Although climate change is the principal factor to the worsening of these fires, many actually start from farmers and people who work the land burning garbage or choosing to do prescribed burns which serve to improve the health of the field. However, with dry conditions, humidity, and strong winds, these controlled fires can easily get out of hand and spread to form wildfires, such as the devastating Amazon fires in 2019. The coordinator of the Fire Center at Wageningen University (WUR) in The Netherlands told The Verge that “People want to get rid of the forest to make agricultural land, for people to eat meat” (Stoof, 2019), and that this triggered the Amazon fires.

South America experiences a dry season between July and October, and by not taking this period into account, the prescribed burns which took place as a routine farming activity turned into catastrophic wildfires that have accelerated climate change.

However, as mentioned above, some promising news is that wildfires can be prevented. There are cases of fires starting naturally, and as climate change leads to more extreme weather this will become more common. Natural fires start by the sun heating up an area to the point that it combusts or by a lightning strike hitting an area that is dry and high in temperature. Aside from rewilding techniques, disposing of smoking materials carefully, abstaining from setting off pyrotechnics and planting fire-resistant plants such as lavender and sage are all personal ways you can contribute to preventing wildfires. It is also crucial to keep an eye-out for unattended fires, to report them, and to make sure we extinguish fire pits and campfires when we’ve finished forest activities.

Glaciers melting

Another climate-induced threat in South America is the melting of glaciers at alarming rates, with Miguel Brown from Nature World News assuring that these glacier changes will be the largest in history. So large, in fact, that Patagonia is rising. This is especially concerning because “even though Patagonia is inaccessible… fast-melting mountains lead to worldwide ocean warming, which is currently threatening low-lying populations,” (Brown, 2022). As the ice sheets melt and glaciers shrink, the ground beneath it is also shifting and rising which can lead to new patterns of tectonic plate movements. The melting of ice-covered surfaces leads to temperatures rising more because the excess heat isn’t reflected back into space by the ice, and it contributes to sea levels rising.

For example, in Chile, all but two of its 26,000 glaciers are shrinking, causing water levels to rise dramatically and to areas flooding in a matter of moments. As a response to these threats, Chile has set out to create a new National Glacier Park, covering 75,000 hectares of Andes Mountain land and aims to protect 368 glaciers. The president stated that this park is a big step to combatting the destruction of nature and will help preserve flora native to the mountain and animals endemic to the area. Chile and Argentina have also been working together for years to secure glaciers in the Andean-Patagonian area through Los Glaciares National Park, recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981.

Glaciers in Patagonia

Nature Climate Change (NCC) reported that 98% of glaciers have shrunk in the Andes region this century. If this rate continues, many communities who use the meltwater for drinking, irrigation and hydroelectric power will be left with no source of water. This means communities will experience more intense droughts, increased threats of dehydration and farmers will not have the means to sustain their productions. The NCC report also shows that the Patagonian ice fields account for 83% of all ice loss in South America, whilst Andean glaciers continue to recede and melt at different rates. The silver lining is that not many people live in the Patagonian area, but the overarching effects of these glaciers melting will reach bigger communities eventually. Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Peru are worried that, as melting speeds up, they will only have a few years of abundant water availability. Following this, when there is no more glacier to melt, they will be cut off from their source of water.

So, what can we - as citizens not in South America - actually do about this?

Even from miles away, we can prevent glaciers from melting! Earth Reminder (2020) warns that “These are not casual things to take lightly, but these indicate the beginning of all types of natural disasters that must not be neglected.” Personal actions to reduce your carbon footprint will lead to decreasing global warming and, in turn, reducing the rate at which glaciers are currently melting. You can do this by using electricity and water wisely, swapping-out energy produced by fossil fuels for clean sources, by saying no to plastics, rallying your MP for ambitious, pragmatic climate policies, by switching to a plant-based diet and by investing your pension in a green pension fund (such as Kames Ethical Equity Fund).

“These are not casual things to take lightly, but these indicate the beginning of all types of natural disasters that must not be neglected.”

South America climate-induced phenomenon to watch out for:

  1. Mass immigration and increase of climate refugees from islands and coastal areas due to floods caused by rising sea levels.

  2. Precipitation: Low rain levels has led to water scarcity and lowering river levels which tamper with shipping routes, reduce crop yields, and food production; all of which contribute to food insecurity. On the other hand, extreme precipitation has led to landslides and floods in urban areas, displacing many and destroying communities.

  3. The loss of forests and green areas due to wildfires and droughts will lead to damages to the ecosystem, threat to biodiversity and strain to agricultural and farming activities which will strain food supply.

  4. Cyclones and storms will affect countries all over the region, especially Central America and the Caribbean, leading to a disappearance of communities.

  5. Changes in the ocean, making it warmer and therefore more acidic. This contributes to more or longer hurricane seasons, and ocean acidification leads to loss of marine life.

Edited by Michael Anderson

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