Indonesian fires bad for region’s eco-system

Blazes will add to global warming, scientists warn

THE forest fires in Indonesia are damaging the region’s eco-system and will contribute to global warming.

Ecologists and scientists contacted by The Straits Times have warned that the fires could release up to one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide if they continue for the next six months and destroy an area of more than one million hectares of forest.

“This is the worst case scenario, but it is a distinct possibility because natural fires in peat areas are likely to continue for some time and this will contribute directly to the greenhouse effect,” said ecologist Susan Page of the University of Leicester in Britain.

Global warming refers to climate changes and rising temperature brought about by “greenhouse gas” emissions caused by industrialisation and deforestation.

World surface temperatures have risen an average of 0.5 deg C during the 20th century largely due to this phenomenon. Studies show that one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is the equivalent of 10 to 15 per cent of total global gas emissions.

Dr Page, who is conducting research on peat fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra, said that the carbon dioxide released from the recent blazes was much more than western Europe, which emits 900 million tonnes. The United States produces 20 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases.

She noted: “Just Indonesia alone is releasing so much pollution into the atmosphere compared to all of Western Europe combined. It adds to the damage of the eco-system in a very big way.”

Indeed, the fires and the resulting thick haze and smoke are already having an effect on delaying rainfall in Indonesia and exacerbating the current dry spell brought on by the drought-inducing El Nino climatic phenomenon.

Dr Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize winning chemist at the US Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, said that smoke particles would probably suppress precipitation.

“The soot will create clouds with more, but smaller water droplets, a type from which rain rarely falls,” the latest edition of the New Scientist magazine quoted him as saying.

He added that the particles might warm the clouds and make them evaporate.

Mr Timothy Jessup of the World Wide Fund for Nature here said that the fires would cause increasing soil erosion and even make the affected areas more fire-prone given that they will be covered with shrubbery and grassland.

“Secondary forest will be more susceptible and vulnerable to fires,” he said, adding that “natural succession to primary forest will require from 20 to 30 years up to 300 to 500 years”.

Mr Jessup, who has been researching forest wildlife and eco-systems in Indonesia for the last 15 years, said that local habitats had been badly hit by the fires and haze.

Most affected were rare bird species and animals like the Sumatran tiger and orang utan.

He also noted that the “atmospheric effects of the fires and haze would spread beyond the respiratory problems faced by neighbouring countries”.

“It is very clear that the fires will affect not just Indonesia, but the region as well,” he said.

Besides global warming, he said that sedimentation from soil erosion could have an effect on the marine eco-systems in the South China Sea and Java Sea.

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