Mark Cochrane on the Indonesian fires catastrophe…..

11 11 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

I have finally escaped the endless haze of Indonesia for the moment. The last of my non-Indonesian team should have flown out this morning, but that still leaves the Indonesian people who have endured much more of this than anyone to continue to stew in the smoke. The rains have begun to return so the air is much clearer but worsens each afternoon and becomes serous if a day or two without rain passes.

This isn’t some ancient process started in the mists of time, this disaster began in 1996 with a misguided attempt to drain 1 million hectares of peat lands to grow rice of all things (Mega-Rice Project, overview). This calamity was made ever worse when the El Nino-spawned droughts of 1997-98 set the land aflame, initiating the now annual haze events that plague Southeast Asia. What most people do not appreciate is that once the land was drained the carbon loss process was set in place, regardless of whether the fires happen. Once drained the peat begins to be broken down by microbes and the peat subsides as CO2 is released to the atmosphere. When the fires occur they simply speed up the ongoing process, shifting the emissions to be more heavily weighted on carbon monoxide and methane. They also produce the toxic haze of particulates that blanket the region. For months no one ever saw the sun and shadows ceased to exist. The world was a luminescent ball of smoke during the daylight hours with no idea of the time of day. Usually it was white but on truly horrific days when the smoke layer was particularly thick the world was a sickly yellow in color.

The Mega Rice Project (MRP) is now long abandoned but the oil palm plantations have since taken over much of the peat lands across Indonesia furthering the country’s desire to supplant Malaysia as the leading global producer of palm oil. They’ve succeeded but now everyone is paying the price. The ex-MRP put in >4,000km of drainage canals in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) but over in Riau Province on Sumatra where I was in August the palm plantations have installed more than 22,000 km of canals to drain the peat. Out in Papua the oil palm developments are proceeding rapidly as well. Given the internal and international upheaval caused by this year’s fires, there is a desire to somehow ‘fix’ the situation with cloud seeding, air tankers dropping water, and thousands of troops in the field to fight the fires but the reality is that such measures have little effect. Now…

respiratory diseases rise

• Indonesia’s ministry of higher education is attempting to create a research consortium on disaster management.
• Data from Indonesia’s disaster management agency showed the number of people diagnosed with acute respiratory infection increased to 556,945 by November 6.
• After a limited cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss peat management, Jokowi said he wanted the research department of Yogyakarta’s University of Gadjah Mada to play a central role in proposing Indonesia’s new peat strategy.

Air quality in Singapore threatened to seep into unhealthy levels again on Friday as Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo instructed ministers to form a specialist haze task force to stave off another wildfire disaster next year.

“Do not let the dry season come around next year with us not having done anything,” Jokowi said.

No one wants to face the real issues of what must be done to truly stop this dynamic. If they want the fires to stop then the people will have to leave the peatlands (unlikely) or learn to live without fire as a major land use tool (doubtful). If there is truly a desire to stop carbon loss from these ancient peat forest lands then the drainage canals must be blocked (not easy or cheap) and the hydrology of the region restored, flooding the lands and the newly established palm oil plantations (economically disastrous). In short, the actions necessary to try to mitigate this disaster will be politically untenable unless there is some offsetting gain that can support relocating growing populations and replace the oil palm economy.

The worst part of this sad tale, which is also unappreciated is that the oil palm boom is going to be a short one before the bust comes on these peat soils. The peat must be drained and in many cases burned to create the conditions to allow the oil palm to grow, however once this is done the land continues to sink and erode. Every year the surface of the land will be lower and more susceptible to flooding. At best they will get one or two 20 year crop cycles in before the lands need to be abandoned. The combination of falling land levels and rising sea levels will destroy the peatlands and land uses they currently support. It is another short term strip mining operation that will yield nothing but profits for a few and another ecological disaster for the world.


More Climate Change bad news…..

17 08 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

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.