Science Interviews

Interview

Mon, 9th Nov 2015

Forest fire devastates Indonesia

Max Gray, University of Cambridge

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A perfect storm of weather, farming practice and deforestation has resulted in oneforest fire of the most devastating fires the world has ever seen. Max Gray explained to Kat Arney what had caused this fire in the first place, and how it impacting the surrounding people and environment...

Max - Well, the biggest new story in zoology and conservation world at the moment is the fact that vast amounts of Indonesia are on fire. If you've come across this new story, there's huge numbers of forest fires in Indonesia. Partly because it's an El Nino year so the weather has been drier, the monsoons haven't kicked in very early, and small holdings where they burn parts of the forest to clear the land for farming which is often for oil palm plantations have spread to huge phenomenally large areas of rain forests.

Kat - How big are talking here? It's a chain of islands, isn't it?

Max - It is and so, there's fires everywhere essentially. They're visible from space. There's huge amounts of smoke going across the entirety of Indonesia.

Kat - This sounds horrific. What's it doing to the ecosystem there?

Max - It's destroying a huge amount of habitat which is always a problem and unfortunately, this isn't necessarily news in itself because rainforest destruction in that part of the world is always an issue. Unfortunately this week, it seems to be coming to a close mostly because the rains have started kicking in rather than because of any effective human action. But it has had all sorts of horrible effects on human health because of just the shear amount of smoke and haze in the atmosphere. It's even caused a huge amount of carbon emissions as a result unfortunately. This and other forest fires over the course of this year in Indonesia have released 1.6 billion tons of CO2 which is, to put that into perspective, that's about twice the annual carbon emissions of Germany. This is a horrible, horrible thing going on unfortunately.

Kat - Hugh.

Hugh - Is it just the forest that's on fire? Isn't it that there's also the peat in the ground which is on fire.

Max - That's exactly true. So, most of these forests are…

Kat - So there's loads of carbon in there.

Max - Yeah. So these peat forests, some of the most diverse habitats on the face of the planet. Because the peat is very, very dense, there's a huge amount of carbon stored there. It burns very readily. It used to be very common. There's a lot of peat swamps up in Scotland and that has historically in the UK been used as fuel for fires when people couldn’t get access to coal in the 19th century.

Kat - This kind of fire situation, is that part of the natural cycle because I know in places like California, they have fires, it's kind of okay, and everything is kind of cool, and that’s part of the circle of life?

Max - No. unfortunately, not. This is really a direct consequence of human action where people have set these fires to clear land so that then they can then be planted. And that has gone out of hand. So, a lot of the products that we consume on a day to day basis contain palm oil and a huge quantity of which is grown in this part of the world. There is a divide in oil palm between what we would refer to as a sustainable palm oil and the other kind of palm oil, which nobody ever refers to as unsustainable palm oil, but it is.

Kat - Naughty palm oil.

Max - Exactly and the sustainable palm oil does have a condition of not using this burning technique. And so, although it's a slowly growing movement, essentially, by seeking out sustainable palm oil, even people on this side of the planet can potentially make a difference or be it, somewhat small to stopping this from happening in the future.

Chris - Hugh.

Hugh - Getting back to the peat though, I mean, we could in theory stop pulling down these forests and maybe grow more trees. But we can never replace that peat. That peat has been there for millions of years.

Max - So, people have done calculations about this and theorised that once it's gone, it could come back but it might take on the order of 400 to 700 years

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