Over the past few days, WRI has been tracking the location of forest and land fires on Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia. In this update, WRI examines the historical trends of forest fires in Sumatra.

Bacalah posting blog dalam Bahasa Indonesia di sini

Fires continue to burn in Indonesia, spreading haze and suffering across the country and into Malaysia and Singapore. New research from the World Resources Institute reveals troubling trends about the blazes:

  • The current fires are not beyond the normal historic range for fires in the region, but that may change as the fires continue to burn heavily.

  • The recent fires are part of a longstanding, endemic crisis of forest fires and land clearing in Indonesia, and bold action is needed to prevent the crisis from escalating.

In this new analysis, WRI examines the historical trends of forest fires in Sumatra. Rapid analysis from WRI finds that the current forest fires observed in the Riau Province fit into a larger pattern of widespread forest and land fires. However, June 2013 is on track to be one of the worst months on record since 2001. Evaluation of recent wind patterns explains why the fires’ impact was felt so acutely in Singapore.

WRI explored these trends using two key data sets:

  1. Historic fire alerts from NASA’s Active Fire Data, which shows fire alerts for the period of January 1, 2001 until the present.

  2. Information on air dispersion to Singapore derived from NOAA’s HYSPLIT model, which takes into account meteorological data and can be used to estimate the most likely path that air traveled to reach a particular location at a given time. NOTE: The visualizations below are based on publicly available data from NASA, NOAA and the Government of Indonesia. WRI experts have done their best to verify this information, but cannot confirm the accuracy of the original information.

Are Indonesia’s Current Fires an Isolated Incident?

Many people have asked whether the current fires in Indonesia are worse than usual. The map below from NASA demonstrates that fires are an ongoing problem in Sumatra and in Indonesia as a whole. Looking back at historical data, between 2001 and 2012, Sumatra experienced an average of 20,000 fire alerts each year (with a confidence interval of more than 30 percent). Fires are typically more frequent from June to September, with about 60 percent of fire alerts each year observed during these four months.

There have been approximately 8,343 fire alerts over the past month, through June 24, 2013. This is significantly higher than the June average of about 2,000 alerts since 2001 and puts this month at one of the highest in the last 12 years. Over the past 12 years, there have only been three other months with more than 8,000 fire alerts– all of which occurred in 2006.

The ongoing high rate of fires in Indonesia is a very serious issue, and is often related to the clearing of land for major commodities, such as palm oil, pulp, and paper. This damages natural forests, contributes to air pollution and climate change, and is severely detrimental to the health of people in the region.

Scroll down to see an interactive map from NASA showing fire alerts in Sumatra overlaid on recent satellite images, and displaying smoke plumes emanating from active fires:

What Is Different This Time?

While historic data shows that forest fires are not uncommon this time of year in Sumatra, there has been a dramatic increase in international attention around recent fires. Many forest fires typically go unnoticed by people and media outside the Sumatran provinces of Riau, Jambi, and North Sumatra. This time, things are different—most likely because of current wind and air movement patterns, which took the smoke to Singapore.

The fires’ impacts on neighboring Singapore and Malaysia have been dramatic. On Friday, June 21, the Pollution Standard Index (PSI) for measuring air pollution in Singapore climbed to a record 400, much higher than the 226 observed during the massive forest fire events of 1998 and well above the 100 level, which is generally accepted as the maximum for ‘healthy’ air quality.

To understand why Singapore was hit so hard, WRI analyzed patterns of air movement over the month of June 2013 using NOAA’s HYSPLIT model. The figures below show fire alerts overlaid with the daily air trajectories in the last three weeks. We found that in the first week of June, only 4 percent of the fire alerts fell within the wind trajectory for Singapore. However, in the second and third weeks, this number jumped to more than 40 percent, coinciding with a spike in fire alerts.

This pattern, paired with a high number of fire alerts, contributed to the unprecedented air quality emergency in Singapore. Further, as the month proceeds and fires continue to burn, other areas of Malaysia and Thailand are being affected as air dispersion patterns shift. While Singapore is having a respite this crisis is not over and air patterns could shift back in Singapore’s direction again. Meanwhile, the people on Indonesia’s island of Sumatra continue to be worst affected, with reports of evacuations earlier this week.

The wind patterns directed the smoke and haze from a large proportion of fires towards Singapore, a densely populated metropolis and a global financial and media hub. As a result, the haze from the fires instantly drew the international media’s attention. As of last night, the haze has traveled to neighboring Malaysia, with the local pollution levels climbing. So while forest fires in Indonesia are not uncommon, atypical wind patterns this year are helping to bring unprecedented international attention to this endemic problem.

What Can Be Done About the Fires?

While forest fires are an ongoing challenge in Indonesia, the heightened public attention can help to focus on solutions—both in the near-term and long-term. Burning forest is illegal according to Indonesian law, but this has been poorly enforced. Leaders within the Indonesian government, communities, and companies can turn this event into an opportunity to work together nationally, regionally, and locally across borders to determine how to prevent future fires. As the number of fire alerts climbs higher and higher this month, more action is urgently needed to ensure that this destructive pattern ends, most importantly for the people of Indonesia.

Read more about WRI’s recommendations for addressing the fires in Indonesia here:

“Peering Through the Haze: What Data Can Tell Us About the Fires in Indonesia”

“WRI Releases Updated Data on the Fires in Indonesia”

James Anderson, Andrew Leach, Fred Stolle, Andika Putraditama, Lisa Johnston, Susan Minnemeyer and other experts at WRI also contributed to this post.