Extensive scorching of Amazon forest for agriculture still continues

Extensive scorching of Amazon forest for agriculture still continues

The International Space Station (ISS) flew over several Amazon forest fires following the major highway BR 163. Those fires are used to clear patches of forest for agricultural purposes. This process is used to grab rich red-brown soil from forest for agriculture.

Fires captured by ISS crew on August 19, 2014, show the advance of deforestation into the state of Pará, which is now second after Mato Grosso in terms of deforestation acreage. A long line of newly cleared patches snakes east from BR 163 towards the remote valley of Rio Crepori.

Several forest fires along BR 163 highway in Brazil's state of Para captured on August 19, 2014. Extensive deforested areas in remote Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso appear in tan across the top of the image. (Credit: ISS/ESRSU/JSC)

Mato Grosso was long isolated from the outside world. By the early twenty-first century, modern technology had clearly reached Mato Grosso and produced widespread change. A 2006 study found that Brazil’s mechanized agriculture increased by more than 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) between 2001 and 2004, growing more than 540,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) in Mato Grosso alone. Clearing for pasture was still the leading cause of deforestation at that time, but the contribution from large agricultural clearings, such as for soy plantations, was also increasing.

At the beginning of the 20th century, roughly 80 % of the 5 million km2 "Legal Amazon" region of Brazil was forested. Highways built in the 1950s and 1960s, along with government incentives for colonization and development, created a boom in the conversion of forests to cattle ranching and farming. Much of this change occurred along an arc at the southern edge of the Amazon Basin where the newly built roads facilitated access to the forest and connected the region to markets outside the forest. Three states along this arc have accounted for the vast majority of deforestation - Para, Rondônia and Mato Grosso.  

D​eforestation peaked in around 2004 in Para, Rondonia and Mato Grosso and has declined in most years since. Recent research that models environmental feedbacks from deforestation, however, suggests that Mato Grosso may be reaching a tipping point at which forest loss will cause precipitation and soil-fertility to decline to the point that secondary forests would not be able to regenerate 

Featured image: Astronaut photograph ISS040-E-103496 was acquired on August 19, 2014, with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 70 millimeter lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 40 crew. It has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by M. Justin Wilkinson, Jacobs, and Michael Trenchard, Barrios Technology, at NASA-JSC.

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