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Amazon Basin Drought Upping Fire Risk

South America’s Amazon basin, El Niño conditions in 2015 and early 2016 reduced rainfall during the wet season, leaving the region drier at the start of the 2016 dry season than any year since 2002.

The Amazon fire forecast analyzes the relationship between certain climate observations and active fire detections from NASA satellites to predict fire-season severity. Developed in 2011 by scientists at the University of California, Irvine, and NASA, the forecast model is focused particularly on the link between sea-surface temperatures and fire activity. Warmer sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific (as observed during an El Niño) and Atlantic oceans shift rainfall away from the Amazon region, increasing the risk of fire during dry months.

“Severe drought conditions at the start of the dry season have set the stage for extreme fire risk in 2016 across the southern Amazon,” said Doug Morton, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a co-creator of the fire forecast.

For 2016, El Niño-driven conditions are far drier than in 2005 and 2010—the last years when the region experienced drought. The prediction team developed a Web tool to track the evolution of the fire season in near-real time by Amazon region. Estimated fire emissions from each region are updated daily based on active fire detections—made by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite—and data from previous years in the Global Fire Emissions Database. So far, the region has seen more fires through June 2016 than in previous years, another indicator of a potentially tough season.