NASA Says Amazon Fires Were Also Fuelled by Water-Stressed Plants

Satellite images were captured from space by NASA's ECOSTRESS instruments.
Fabienne Lang

Fires in the Amazon Basin are still raging, burning acres upon acres of plants and land since August. Much of the blame falls on human activity, also linked to deforestation efforts that many believe is the sole instigator of the forest fires. 

NASA shared information that human activity wasn't the only thing responsible for these fires, but drought-stressed plants in the region also fuelled them. 

Satellite imagery caught by NASA's ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) shows the pattern of drought-stricken land. 


What are water-stressed areas?

If plants are water-stressed, they release less water vapor into the air. They aren't able to remain cool or conserve water, which in turn leaves them much more vulnerable to catching on fire. 

ECOSTRESS was able to determine that water-stressed plants were in the Amazon Rainforest region that has been burning up. These plants have added to the spread of these fires. 

Unfortunately, scientists are still in the dark as to why certain plants or areas have become water-stressed, and others haven't. They do have a hunch. Much of the problem has to do with certain plant species or the amount of water in the soil. 

Why is this information so important?

By properly utilizing ECOSTRESS' equipment, the data could be used to predict wildfire paths in the future.

ECOSTRESS's main mission is to offer insight into plants' health by measuring their temperature. It does so by measuring thermal infrared energy coming from the land surface. 

With regards to the Amazon Rainforest fires this year, ECOSTRESS was able to capture the first photo of the Peruvian section of the Amazon when the fires began on 7 August. The images clearly show the stressed and non-stressed plants — displayed below in brown and blue, respectively. 

NASA Says Amazon Fires Were Also Fuelled by Water-Stressed Plants
NASA's ECOSTRESS mapping of the water-stressed, and non-stressed areas. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Earth Observatory

The forest fires are depicted with little fire symbols and appear across the satellite map. 

"To the naked eye, the fires appear randomly distributed throughout the forest," said Josh Fisher, ECOSTRESS scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. "But, if you overlay the ECOSTRESS data, you can see that the fires are mainly confined within the highly water-stressed areas. The fires avoided the low-stress areas where the forest appears to have access to more water."

ECOSTRESS's data could be fundamental in understanding which plant species will thrive in their new environments, as well as assisting in water management and agricultural irrigation.

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