It happens every year, but this year is shaping up as one of the worst ever. During Indonesia’s dry season, certain people—rarely identified, much less punished—set illegal fires to make land suitable for the palm oil and paper-and-pulp industries. Those fires generate huge amounts of smoke, and the toxic haze often reaches neighboring countries, including Singapore and Malaysia. But this year the El Niño weather phenomenon has created extremely dry conditions, leading to an unusually intense, long-lasting “smoke-out” for the region, affecting everything from travel to sporting events to respiratory health.
So far this year, Indonesia’s fires have produced more pollution than Germany does in a year. On 26 days from the period of Sept. 1 to Oct. 14, their daily emissions surpassed those of the entire US (the world’ssecond-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China), according to researchers led by Guido van der Werf from VU University Amsterdam. They calculated that the nearly 100,000 fires in Indonesia detected to date this year emitted more than 1,000 metric tons (1,102 tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions cumulatively. That puts the country on track for its worst fire year since 2006. On Oct. 14 alone there were more than 4,700 fire alerts—that’s more than on any single day in the past two years.
So why are these fires so potent? More than half of them this year have occurred on peatland areas, concentrated mainly in south Sumatra, south and central Kalimantan (on Borneo), and Papua, according to the World Resources Institute, citing data from Global Forest Watch Fires.
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