False Reports of Amazon Fires Mislead, Undermine Trust

August 27, 2019 Updated: March 19, 2021


The latest climate-change disaster du jour was the lead story in many newsfeeds and headlines around the globe. The report that the Amazon was burning at unprecedented rates due to man-made global warming was tailor-made for the climate-catastrophe crowd to promote fear of impending planet-wide doom.

The reliably alarmist CNN headline was “Amazon rainforest burning at record rate,” while over at the New York Daily News, the writer declared, “The Amazon rainforest is burning. Be afraid.” Most reporting included some variation on the theme that “the lungs of the world are burning.”

In a tweet, French President Emmanuel Macron called upon world leaders to place the fires in the Amazon at the top of their agenda when they meet for the Group of Seven summit: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest—the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen—is on fire.”

The source of this alarm is an ostensibly reliable source, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. However, a closer look reveals some real problems with the data.

First, the satellite fire data referenced only began in 2013, so six years of data is hardly long enough to make statements about “record breaking” in any context. Secondly, the satellite data collected wasn’t intended to be used as a counting tool for number of fires, but rather as a readiness alert system to identify fires before they rage out of control. It turns out that the same fire might be counted more than once to ensure that none are missed.

Likely the most shared image of the “devastation” was a NASA satellite image across most of the Amazon showing smoke from fires in many areas. What was not shared was the caption NASA provided, which states, in part, “As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years.”

According to NASA’s Global Fire Emissions Database, activity is above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondonia, but so far is below average in Mato Grosso and Pará. The overall numbers are pretty much in line with historic data that goes back to 2003, much longer than the Brazilian data and with satellite data analysis specifically designed to do the task of counting the fires rather than simply alerting government personnel of danger.

A little background on Amazon fire is in order to put these yearly fires in perspective. The fire season in the Amazon begins with the dry season in late July and peaks in mid-September before ending in November. Nearly all of the fires are intentionally set because dry lightning strikes are rare and it’s difficult to begin a fire in a damp rainforest.

Ranchers have used fire to clear the forest, as it’s much easier than felling the timber. It’s estimated that up to 15 percent of the original forest has been cleared in this manner, most of which occurred in the 1990s and 2000s before conservation efforts slowed the loss of forest.

Fires are rare during much of the year, because it’s difficult to start and spread them due to the exceedingly wet nature of the climate. During the dry season, land that has already been cleared is typically burned periodically to regenerate and maintain farmland or pasture. Much of the fire that’s being reported as the virgin tropical rainforest is existing grassland or farmland being regenerated using fire as a tool.

The Amazonian rainforest is a powerful and necessary ecological niche, and conservation efforts have been effective at stemming the worst of deforestation abuses. The promotion of alarmist and false information misdirects the energies of people, including world leaders, and undermines trust in media and public institutions.

Gregory Wrightstone is the author of the new book “Inconvenient Facts: The Science That Al Gore Doesn’t Want You to Know.” He is a geologist with more than 35 years of experience researching and studying various aspects of the Earth’s processes.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gregory Wrightstone is a geologist and the executive director of the CO2 Coalition in Arlington, Virginia. He is bestselling author of “Inconvenient Facts: The Science That Al Gore Doesn’t Want You to Know.”