Wildfires of borneo

Climate in the mire from burning swamp

The smoke billowed through Palangkaraya. One of the largest towns in Borneo was engulfed in acrid smog denser even than one of London's old pea-soupers. It blotted out so much sun that there was a chill in the air of a town more used to the dense, humid heat of the rainforest that encircled it. This was late 1997, and the rainforest was burning. The most intense El Nino event on record in the Pacific Ocean had stifled the storm clouds that normally bring rain to Borneo and the other islands of Indonesia. Landowners took advantage of the dry weather to burn the forest and carve out new plantations for palm oil and other profitable crops. The fires got out of control, and the result was one of the greatest forest fires in human history. The smoke spread for thousands of miles. Unsighted planes crashed from the skies, and ships collided at sea; in neighboring Malaysia and distant Thailand, hospitals filled with victims of lung diseases, and schools were closed. The fires became a global news story. The cost of the fires in lost business alone was put at tens of billions of dollars.

But it was not just the trees that were burning. The densest smoke was in central Borneo, around Palangkaraya, where the fires had burrowed down, drying and burning a vast peat bog that underlay the forest. The peat, 60 feet deep in many places, was the accumulated remains of wood and forest vegetation that had fallen into the swamps here over tens of thousands of years. Even after the rains returned, the peat continued to smolder for months on end. When the smoke finally cleared, most of the swamp forest was burned and black, and skeletons of trees poked from charred ground that had shrunk in places by a yard or more.

The burning of the Borneo swamp was part of a wider global assault on tropical rainforests—for timber and for land. But there were aggravating factors here. Until recently, the swamps were empty of humans. Local tribes and modern farmers alike had found them inhospitable and inaccessible. But in the early 1990s, Indonesia's President Suharto decreed that an area of the central Borneo swamp forest half the size of Wales should be drained and transformed into a giant rice paddy to make his country self- sufficient in its staple foodstuff. Some 2,500 miles of canals were dug to drain the swamp. Some 60,000 migrant farmers were brought in from other islands to cultivate the rice. The soils proved infertile, and virtually no rice was ever grown. The megaproject was abandoned. But its legacy lingers, as the canals continue to drain the swamps, and the desiccated peat burns every dry season. Especially during El Ninos.

This is no mere local environmental disaster. Jack Rieley, a British ecologist with a love of peat bogs who has adopted the central Borneo swamps for his field studies, says the disaster is of global importance. At least half of the world's tropical peat swamps are on the Indonesian islands of Borneo, Sumatra, and West Papua. And the largest, oldest, and deepest of them are in central Borneo, where they cover an area a quarter the size of England and harbor large populations of sun bears and clouded leopards, as well as the world's largest surviving populations of orangutans. They also contain vast amounts of carbon—perhaps 50 billion tons of the stuff. That is almost as much as in the entire Amazon rainforest, which is more than ten times as large. One acre of Borneo peat swamp contains 880 tons of carbon.

Tropical peat swamps are a major feature of the planet's carbon cycle. They are important amplifiers of climate change, capable of helping push the world into and out of ice ages by capturing and releasing carbon from the air. For thousands of years, they have been keeping the world cooler than it might otherwise be, by soaking up carbon from the air. For that carbon to be released now, as the world struggles to counter global warming, would be folly indeed. But that is what is happening. Rieley estimates that during the El Nino event of 1997 and 1998, as Palangkaraya disappeared for months beneath smoke, the smoldering swamps lost more than half a yard of peat layer, and released somewhere between 880 mil- lion and 2.8 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere: the equivalent of up to 40 percent of all emissions from burning fossil fuels worldwide that year.

At first there was some skepticism about his figures. Few other researchers had been to Borneo to see what was going on. But in 2004, U.S. government researchers published a detailed analysis of gas measurements made around the world. It showed that roughly 2.2 billion tons more carbon than usual entered the atmosphere during 1998—and two thirds of that excess came from Southeast Asia. The Borneo fires must have contributed most of that, and burning peat was almost certainly the major component. "We are witnessing the death of one of the last wilderness ecosystems on the planet, and it is turning up the heat on climate change as it goes," says Rieley. "What was once one of the planet's most important carbon sinks is giving up that carbon. The whole world is feeling the effect."

Every year, farmers continue burning forest in Borneo to clear land for farming. And whenever the weather is dry, those fires spread out through the jungle and down into the peat. Satellite images suggest that 12 million acres of the swamp forests were in flames at one point during late 2002. And 2002 and 2003 were the first back-to-back years in which net additions to the atmosphere's carbon burden exceeded 4.4 billion tons. Rieley reckons that the burning swamp forests contributed a billion tons of that.

It looked as if smoldering bogs in remote Borneo were single-handedly ratcheting up the speed of climate change. They show, says David Schimel, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), in Boulder, Colorado, how "catastrophic events affecting small areas can have a huge impact on the global carbon balance." Fire in Borneo and the Amazon may be turning the world's biggest living "sinks" for carbon dioxide into the most dynamic new source of the gas in the twenty-first century.

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