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Indonesia's wildfires are dangerous not just because of the blazes, but because of the toxic smoke they emit. (Photo: Reuters)

Indonesia's Deforestation-Fueled Wildfires May Be World's Worst Climate Crisis

Hundreds of thousands have fallen ill and at least 19 have died from fighting blazes and pollutant exposure

Nadia Prupis

A rash of wildfires in Indonesia and the resulting toxic haze of smoke and smog may be the worst climate crisis on Earth right now, NASA scientists warned this week as Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla announced that the administration was considering declaring a state of emergency.

Forest fires on the island of Sumatra, which were started in August as part of a "slash-and-burn" deforestation plan to clear land for palm oil plantations, have raged out of control for the past two months, sending thick plumes of smoke across the archipelago and much of southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

Hundreds of thousands of people have reportedly fallen ill and 19 have died—some from battling the fires and others from exposure to the fumes. The smoke has also disrupted public transportation and forced school cancellations.

"The problem is too big," Kalla said Tuesday, a day after President Joko Widodo cut short his first official visit to the U.S. to visit the affected areas.

Indonesia has used slash-and-burn tactics for decades. "Most burning starts on idle, already-cleared peatlands and escapes underground into an endless source of fuel," explained David Gaveau of the Center for International Forestry Research.

Researchers with the World Resources Institute (WRI) wrote earlier this month:

The burning of tropical peatlands is so significant for greenhouse gas emissions because these areas store some of the highest quantities of carbon on Earth, accumulated over thousands of years. Draining and burning these lands for agricultural expansion (such as conversion to oil palm or pulpwood plantations) leads to huge spikes in greenhouse gas emissions. Fires also emit methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), but peat fires may emit up to 10 times more methane than fires occurring on other types of land. Taken together, the impact of peat fires on global warming may be more than 200 times greater than fires on other lands.

But a particularly long dry season this year, along with the impacts of El Niño, have exacerbated conditions and set the outbreak on the track to be the worst environmental crisis on record.

"This is a crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions," said Sutopo Puro Nugroho, the spokesperson for the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), who added that number of health impacts may be much higher than reported.

Also at risk are orangutans, which have been left sick and malnourished by the thousands due to the haze, while the fires turn their habitats to burned up wasteland.

Indonesia has the world's highest rate of  deforestation and is the fifth-highest greenhouse gas emitter. According to the WRI, land use like palm oil plantations make up about 61 percent of the country's emissions—but with forest fires reaching more than 1,500 hot spots in the archipelago this week, Indonesia sent out more greenhouse gases in the past few days than the U.S., the world's second-highest polluter, according to climate analysts.

The last time an Indonesian fire season led to record levels of air pollution was in 1997, when similar conditions led to a lack of rainfall and allowed the hot spots to burn out of control on a wide scale.

"We are on a similar trajectory to other bad years," said Robert Field, a Columbia University scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "Conditions in Singapore and southeastern Sumatra are tracking close to 1997, with some stations having visibility less than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) on average for a week. In Kalimantan, there have been reports of visibility less than 50 meters (165 feet)."

Luhut B. Pandjaitan, Indonesia's coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said heavy rainfall Tuesday night has helped temper the fires, reducing the number of hot spots from more than 1,500 on Monday to 291 on Wednesday. But he added that much more rain would be necessary to get them under control.

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