Much of western Indonesia is currently undergoing massive fires, producing enormous amounts of smoke-haze, and disrupting large parts of society in the region. This is unlikely to be ‘normal’ seasonal burning; it could rank among the worst fire seasons on record in Indonesia, with frequent and larger fires this year than in previous years. The burning will likely last for at least another month.
Fire is used in Indonesia as a land clearing tool in preparation for agriculture. Indonesia’s current burning season is so anomalous because of the drought associated with a strong El Niño in combination with past deforestation. Deforested idle peatlands – consisting mostly of dead wood debris and dry exposed soils – are the main source of fire emissions. Peatland fires can escape underground into a potentially endless source of fuel, produce smoke continuously, and are extremely difficult to put out.
According to NASA satellite data, Indonesia is on track to have the highest fire activity since 2001 (when data first became available). Visibility across western Indonesia has plummeted and is now worse than the last prolonged episode in 2006. Visibility in Singapore and southeastern Sumatra is tracking similarly even to 1997, the strongest El Niño and worst fire year on record in Indonesia. Some reporting stations have visibility due to the smog less than 1 km on average for a week. In Kalimantan, there are frequent reports of visibility less than 50 meters.
Visibility this low corresponds to very high levels of particulate matter, ozone and other pollutants. These have an enormously negative effect on air quality and people’s health, most severely in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and downwind in Singapore and Malaysia. Previous analysis estimated that 11,000 adults in the Equatorial Asian region died prematurely in 1997 due to cardiovascular diseases related to poor air quality from fires.
Excessive burning causes Indonesia to be a disproportionately large greenhouse gas emitter, relative to the size of its economy. Fire emissions in 1997 (measured at almost 4 billion tons of CO2) are comparable to one year of current fossil fuel emissions in the EU. Emissions in 2006 were about one-third of the 1997 level and roughly comparable to one year of Germany’s fossil fuel emissions. Detailed estimates of Indonesia’s emissions this year will be available early in 2016. We expect that, should burning continue through October, emissions totals will rank among the highest on record for Indonesia.
Whether emissions will be larger than 1997 depends for a large part on whether the current El Niño will delay the onset of the rains relied upon to extinguish the fires. Already, El Niño conditions this year are similar to conditions in 1997. Seasonal climate models predict El Niño will strengthen over the coming months, which implies that 2015 may reach 1997 levels.
What can be done to alleviate Indonesia’s fire conditions? As in the western U.S, Canada, and Australia, Indonesia is facing a difficult set of circumstances, and there is no simple answer to controlling fires. However, a new level of international cooperation can focus on sharing the resources and expertise needed to increase capabilities for the prediction, prevention, enforcement and suppression of fires. Fire season forecasts can help to anticipate severe fire seasons and allocate resources where they are needed most. In the long-term, Indonesia’s peatlands must be restored to their hydrological equilibrium. The region’s peat-swamp rainforests were once efficient carbon sinks and biodiversity treasures. Now, these areas are man-made wastelands that drive the spread of regional fires and haze.