Sorry to be so long away but I’ve been on the road one way or another for 7 of the last 8 weeks, most recently in Indonesia on the islands of Java and Sumatra. One of the main foci of my research these days is on the climate and land use interactions behind the peat fires that plague the region. Ever since the major El Nino of 1997-98 peat fires in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and Riau and Jambi provinces on Sumatra have become a near annual occurrence with the situation being simply a matter of degree.
The situation is another self-inflicted ecological disaster that is man-made. Peat swamp forests were cleared to grow massive quantities of oil palm, and rice in a madcap clearance of 1,000,000 ha in the case of Kalimantan. The forests sat over several meters of peat that had been laid down over more than 20,000 years. In order to utilize these lands it wasn’t sufficient to clear the forests, the lands needed to be drained with thousands of kilometers of canals. Draining tropical peat lands is the equivalent of melting Arctic/boreal permafrost. It turns a sequestered pool of carbon into one that can be actively metabolized by microorganisms and also burned when dry enough. In short, they become another source of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. This is why Indonesia ranks 3rd in global emissions these days.
This is what Riau province looked like last year.
I just came from there, having been out with firefighters like the one shown. While things have calmed down for the moment, there are numerous peat fires currently smoldering across the region, having been burning for more than a month already. Once the fires go to ground in the peat it is nearly impossible to extinguish them. They tend to burn until the heavy rains of the wet season flood the lands. A few years earlier I was doing field work in Kalimantan when similar conditions of extensive burning and massive haze conditions covered the region. When we came out of the field, we were unable to leave the region because all planes were grounded for over a week. We eventually gambled on a long drive to the coast to escape the region instead.
The regional haze is a toxic mix of gases and particulates that cause thousands of illnesses and deaths. They reach beyond Indonesia and bedevil Singapore among other places.
I raise these points because these conditions are at their worst during El Nino events. At the end of the month we will ‘officially’ meet NOAA’s El Nino definition (I believe the Aussies already acknowledge the obvious). All models call for the strongest El Nino since 1997-98, with an 80% chance it will continue until at least the end of spring next year (Northern Hemisphere spring that is!). This is what global precipitation patterns are likely to look like in general for the next three months.
That big red blob of very dry conditions sits right on Indonesia. If I finally exit the two year bureaucratic quagmire I have been in, as now seems likely, I should be leading a field team testing emissions from the peat fires in Kalimantan come mid October. It should be interesting if unhealthy. Lest anyone think that science is nothing but sitting at a desk number crunching, the scientists and equipment I have coming in to do the sampling were most recently in Nepal on another project when the earthquake hit, dropping a building on their equipment but thankfully not them. As for me, during the 1997-98 El Nino I was over in that other dry blob that affects the Amazon standing in the midst of a 1,000 km2 forest fire that happened to burn through my plots while I was in them. Always get the data! Cochrane et al. 1999, Science.