World·CBC Explains

Amazon rainforest fires called a 'very serious threat' but misinformation is going viral

The wildfires burning in Brazil's Amazon rainforest have prompted a public outcry on social media. But interest in the crisis has also led to the spread of misinformation and raised questions about whether the situation is as bad as it may seem. CBC News explains.

75,000 of the rainforest fires are burning in Brazil ⁠— an 80% increase from 2018

A fire burns in the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, on Aug. 14, 2019. Some of the pictures purportedly of this year's wildfires that are circulating in social media are from previous years and of different fires altogether. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

The wildfires burning in the Amazon rainforest have prompted a public outcry on social media, with many accusing news organizations of either ignoring the crisis or being slow to report on it. 

It has also led to the hashtags #PrayfortheAmazon, #prayforamazonia and #AmazonRainforest, which have been trending on Twitter. Meanwhile, a number of photos have gone viral, purportedly depicting the devastation wrought in the area.

But how accurate are those pictures, and just how bad is the situation? CBC News answers those questions.

What about some of those photos that have gone viral?

Social media has circulated a number of photos purporting to show Amazon rainforests engulfed in flames, or giant plumes of smoke billowing out from the area. But news outlets have found that some of these photos are of different fires at different time periods from different geographic locations.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, reposted this picture on his Instagram, which already has drawn more than three million likes:

But CNN reported that it found the same picture on a website published in 2018.

As for these four photos shared by actor David  Licauco, none are of the current fires, CNN reported.  Instead, it discovered that the top image is from a 2018 wildfire in Sweden; the bottom is of a wildfire in Montana on Aug. 6, 2000.

What about those pictures of black skies during the day?

Some people compared the ominous darkness that earlier this week spread across the skies of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, to the end of the world.

Some believed the smoke from wildfires in the state of Sao Paulo wildfires had blocked out the light.

But there are differing opinions on the cause.

Some suggested it was caused by a confluence of events — fires, strong winds, and a cold front.

"The smoke didn't come from fires in the state of Sao Paulo, but from very dense and wide fires that have been happening for several days in [the state of] Rondonia and Bolivia," Josélia Pegorim, a meteorologist with Climatempo, a Brazilian weather channel, said in an interview with Globo.

"The cold front changed direction and its winds transported the smoke to Sao Paulo."

The smoke billowing from the fires is intense, but some experts say air quality is good and the smoke reaching Brazil's cities is from Bolivia. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

However, Celso Oliveira, a meteorologist from Somar Meteorologia, told Forbes that the darkness didn't have anything to do with the fires in the Amazon. He pointed to official data showing good air quality in the area.

"The gloom has no relation to the smoke. It happened because of the enormity of the clouds," he said.

OK, so then how bad is it?

Wildfires are common in the Amazon during the dry season, which lasts from August to November. But this has been a record year.

Currently, there are more than 165,000 fires burning in the rainforest

According to Brazil's space research centre, INPE, which has been recording wildfires since 2013, more than 75,000 of those fires are burning in Brazil. That's more than an 80 per cent increase over the same period of 2018, the agency told Reuters. 

Nigel Sizer, chief program officer of the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance, told CBC News that in the last week alone, satellites have recorded 10,000 fires burning across the Brazilian Amazon. Meanwhile, 1.8 million hectares have reportedly been destroyed in a matter of three weeks.

"It's a very serious threat to the forest, to the people who live there, to the global ecosystem and climate as well," Sizer said.

Are there going to be environmental consequences?

Paulo Moutinho, an ecologist with Brazil's Amazon Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit that works for the Amazon's sustainable development, said the most significant impact will be on rainfall at a "continental scale."

The rainforest is like a huge irrigation system and is fundamental in keeping the Amazon producing rain that's transported to other regions by winds, he told CBC News.

"Without the forest, the rain system will be very disturbed with consequences to crop production, making the fires more frequent and intense," Moutinho said in an email. "With deforestation we are releasing CO2 to atmosphere making the climate change worse."

What impact is this having on human health?

In the regions affected by the wildfires, they are probably the biggest source of air pollution in the year, said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health.

But there is no mistaking the severity of this year's fires. This Aug. 15, 2019 satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows closeup view of a fire southwest of Porto Velho Brazil. The country has seen 80% more fires this year over the same period in 2018. (Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies/The Associated Press)

While these areas are often sparsely populated, the smoke can travel thousands of kilometres.

"If these plumes ... go to populated areas, they will have pretty significant impacts on the local air quality and the health of the populations," he said.

With files from Reuters