Apocalypse, Now…

A jaguar crouches on an area recently scorched by wildfires.
Firefighters and volunteers in the Pantanal, Brazil, have been scrambling to rescue jaguars from extreme fires.Credit: Andre Penner/AP/Shutterstock

Topics: Climate Change, Existentialism, Global Warming

Cultural reference: Apocalypse Now

When Luciana Leite arrived in the Pantanal on 2 September, she thought she would be celebrating her wedding anniversary. Instead, the biologist and her husband spent their eight-day planned holiday aiding volunteers and firefighters struggling to extinguish the burning landscape.

A common destination for ecotourists, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, home to Indigenous peoples and a high concentration of rare or endangered species, such as jaguars and giant armadillos. Small fires occur every year in the region, which sprawls over parts of western Brazil and extends into Bolivia and Paraguay.

But 2020’s fires have been unprecedented in extent and duration, researchers say. So far, 22% of the vast floodplain — around 3.2 million hectares (see ‘Biodiversity Hotspot Under Threat’) — has succumbed to the flames, according to Renata Libonati, a remote-sensing specialist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, whose data are being used by firefighters to plan containment. That’s more than twice the area that has burnt in the record-breaking fires in California this year.

Scientists worry that the extreme blazes will profoundly alter the already fragile ecosystem of the Pantanal, and that research programmes investigating the region’s ecology and biodiversity will never recover.

“It’s apocalyptic,” says Leite, who studies humanity’s relationship with nature at the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil. “It is a tragedy of colossal proportions.”

Apocalyptic’ fires are ravaging the world’s largest tropical wetland, Emiliano Rodríguez Mega, Nature

Published by reginaldgoodwin

Engineering Physics, Bachelors of Science, December 1984 Microelectronics & Photonics, Graduate Certificate, February 2016 Nanoengineering, Masters, December 2019 Nanoengineering, Ph.D., December 2021

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