A Single Bad Fire Season Sent Smoke Halfway Around the Planet
For several months last fall,
"I'd never seen anything quite like this before," Robert Field of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies told Gizmodo. "It looked more like what you'd expect for a major volcanic eruption."
Field is lead author on a
of Indonesia's 2015 fire season, which used data from five Earth-observing
All told, the plumes of soot and carbon monoxide-rich smoke from the record fire season-Indonesia's worst since 1997-wrapped halfway around the equator, from East Africa to the western Pacific. The smoke persisted for two months, fouling the air across an enormous swath of the Indo-Australian region, including Singapore, western Malaysia and southern Thailand. And the fires yielded more carbon pollution than Japan, the sixth largest CO2 emitter on Earth, did in 2013.
Last year's Godzilla El Nino is partially to blame. Indonesia sees some of the strongest rainfall deficits of any region on Earth during El Nino years. "It's an immediate effect like clockwork," Field said.
But while El Nino-fueled droughts set the stage for fires, you still need something or someone to light them. In Indonesia, it's farmers, who routinely set fire to land to clear out brush and crop residue. Once ignited, those fires creep deep underground, smoldering through thousands of years of carbon-rich peat for months on end. "There's sort of an inexhaustible supply of fuel," Field said.
Conditions in Indonesia are much wetter this year, and the fire season is expected to be muted. But a growing number of scientists are concerned about what exceptionally dirty, unnatural