Record-breaking Wildfires Destroyed Brazil’s Largest Tropical Wetland

The Pantanal, one of Brazil’s enormous tropical wetlands, is under unprecedented wildfires. The fourth week of June 2024 made history as fires scorched this singular and crucial ecosystem like never before.

The aerial footage shows a landscape entirely dominated by smoke and flames. Ground images from Reuters show the charred remains of wildlife like alligators, monkeys, and snakes. This month, as recorded by Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, INPE, more than the record amount for June it had in 2005 with 435 fires. There have been 733 fires reported in the Pantanal as well.

Extreme Weather Conditions

The state of Mato Grosso do Sul is at high notes for a new heatwave. Temperatures will be above average by 5 ºC for the next three to five days, according to Brazil’s National Meteorological Institute, Inmet.

WWF Brazil says that 2024 might just turn out to be the worst year ever for the Pantanal. With the dry season barely having gotten underway, the number of fires has risen by 898 percent this year to date. Compared with the same date in 2023 according to INPE data, it has never risen as much. According to Cynthia Santos, a conservation analyst with WWF Brazil, it “needs to act fast, reinforcing the fire brigades and counting on local community support to avoid a catastrophe.

This unique Pantanal ecosystem relies on what scientists call the “flood pulse.” Three-quarters of the plain floods during the wet season, from November to March, and then drains out in the dry months from April to September. A seasonal flood of this scale is what changes big lands from terrestrial to aquatic habitats, and vice versa—in a word, making Pantanal a biome apart.

Wetlands, like the Pantanal, form some of the most critical carbon sinks, absorbing and storing more carbon than they emit. With an area of land of approximately 200 000 km², the Pantanal corresponds to about 3% of the world’s wetlands. Therefore, it contributes and conditions to the global carbon cycle. When rich ecosystems like these catch on fire, large quantities of heat-trapping gases are loosed into the air, enhancing the increase in greenhouse gases.

Biodiversity and Ecological Importance

The Pantanal is the most concentrated habitat of wildlife in South America, even more than what Amazon, per the WWF. It has thousands of endangered or unique species: jaguars, capybaras, caimans noirs, otters géants, and hyacinth macaws. The wetland also acts as an essential stopover for approximately 180 species of migratory birds.

The Pantanal is going through a very acute hydrological crisis at the moment. With growing pressure from drought beginning in 2023 and the El Niño phenomenon. The drought brought exceptionally high levels of dryness, raising the risk and hence potential severity of wildfires.

Adaptations and Community Impact

Wildfires are part of Pantanal’s natural phenomena, and some plants have become fire-resistant by developing thick bark or hard coats on seeds. However, these current fires are way off the natural norm. Fires that burned in 2020 alone destroyed unique habitats and badly damaged the livelihoods of many indigenous communities currently living there.

There are several downsides of ongoing global rising temperatures, from risking millions of lives to inviting economic repercussions. At this rate of global warming and weather unpredictability, conservation and protection of such carbon sinks acquire paramount importance. Current priorities should lie in firefighting efforts to reduce the impact parameter. Engaging local communities to prevent further loss so that this irreplaceable wetland keeps surviving into the future.

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