Fire will limit development and poverty reduction efforts while increasing greenhouse gas emissions and food insecurity in the region, said Pinedo-Vasquez, who grew up in a small farming community outside Pucallpa, in Peru's Amazon basin. "The risks will increase as we face climate change and demographic shifts, and as land-use changes are becoming more evident."
Drought in the Amazon has long been associated with the large-scale weather pattern known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation in the Pacific Ocean. During an El Niño year, the winds that usually blow from east to west across the Amazon weaken, so less moisture is carried over the basin. Drier forests pump less moisture back into the atmosphere, exacerbating the effect.
But 2005 and 2010, both record drought years in the western Amazon, were not El Niño years.
Atlantic Ocean is key
Researchers now think the key lies not in the Pacific – or, at least, not entirely – but in the north tropical Atlantic Ocean, off Brazil’s northern coast.
When sea surface temperatures in that area warms, moisture-bearing winds shift northward, said Katia Fernandes of Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Heavier rains fall in the northern Amazon, while the southwest gets a drought.
Fernandes thinks she can predict those droughts. Looking at droughts over the past few decades, she found that ocean temperatures rose about three months before the dry spell set in – enough time for scientists to issue a warning so governments can prohibit burning during especially dry periods.
That could help farmers tip Amazonian forests back to the carbon sink side of the scale.
In Moyobamba, Pinasco and her colleagues have launched a fire observatory to map hot spots and try to predict high-risk areas. They also teach farmers safer burning techniques, although they would like to see the San Martín region – which has seen an influx of newcomers seeking to cash in on coffee and cacao booms – ban burning altogether.
Pinedo-Vásquez is skeptical about the practicality of going fire free. He and other researchers are studying the behavior of both humans and fire, to make recommendations for better land-use management.
The areas near Moyobamba and Pucallpa are magnets for migrants from the Andean highlands who are new to Amazonian farming. Because escaped fires are most common in areas settled by newcomers, those are the places where fire education should focus, Pinedo-Vásquez said.
"Just blaming them, and telling them they're the sources of fire won't help," he said.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.