Forest fires – dangerous haze and carbon dioxide

During the last two days PSI* readings were really high, reaching the unhealthy to very unhealthy range. But today conditions were much better and I could for the first time see patches of blue sky. When conditions are very hazy the sky is grey and the distant high rises are are only barely visible.

Being here in Singapore is however nothing compared to Kalimantan, where forest fires have been burning for several months and where the air is thick with hazardous haze. Kalimantan has huge peatland areas (see article for describing the problems) and of these 78% are actually owned by private companies. Since large parts of the peatlands have been drained, they are dry and fires easily spread. A total of 1.7 million hectares are now burning and there does not seem an end to the fires. This year’s fires have already released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the whole of Germany in one year. Fires are also burning all over Sumatra and it is mainly the smoke from these fires, which reaches Singapore.

The Washington Post writes that the 2015 Indonesian fire season has so far featured a stunning 94,192 fires. Those emissions are more than large enough to have global consequences. Indeed, according to recent calculations by Guido van der Werf, a researcher at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands who keeps a database that tracks the global emissions from wildfires, this year’s Indonesian fires had given off an estimated 995 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions as of Oct. 14.That’s just shy of a billion metric tons, or a gigaton. The number is an estimate, of course, and subject to “substantial uncertainties” — but it’s also based on a well-developed methodology for estimating wildfire emissions to the atmosphere based upon satellite images of the fires themselves and the vegetation they consume. “Fire emissions are already higher than Germany’s total CO2 emissions, and the fire season is not over yet,” says van der Werf.

Forest fires occur each year in Indonesia, but this year’s fires are the most extensive producing long-lasting haze. I experienced forest fires in spring this year in northern Thailand. But these fires were small and localized, and controlled by fire walls, so that they would not spread. Still the smoke was so thick that airplanes could no longer start and land and breathing was really difficult. Just imagine how it must feel for all the people living on Sumatra and Kalimantan who are enveloped in this smoke full of dangerous substances!

*The Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) reflects a total of six pollutants – sulphur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter (PM10) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone (O3).

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