Smoke-Filled Satellite Images Reveal the Disturbing Extent of Wildfires in Indonesia

A blanket of smoke over Borneo on September 15.
Image: MODIS/NASA

As wildfires continue to rage in the Amazon, Indonesians and their neighbors are are struggling to cope with excessive smoke caused by burning forests and peatlands. New satellite images show the extent of the blazes, with Borneo barely visible under a thick blanket of noxious smoke.

This incredible image, taken on September 15, 2019, was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite, according to a NASA Earth Observatory press release. As of late last week, over 4,000 hot spots have been identified in Indonesia, with most of them concentrated in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) and Sumatra. The smoke produced by these fires has resulted in numerous school closures, disruptions at airports, air quality alerts, and health warnings, both in Indonesia and the surrounding area.

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An annotated version of the image.
Image: MODIS/NASA

Kalimantan, where many of the fires are currently active, is known for its extensive peat deposits, filled with decaying plant material. Once alight, these peat fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish. Slowly smoldering beneath the surface, these subterranean blazes linger for months until the arrival of the rainy season.

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CNN reports that 185 individuals were recently arrested in Indonesia under suspicions they were involved in activities responsible for the fires. Peat fires are common in Kalimantan at this time of year, but “farmers burn off agricultural and logging debris to clear the way for crops and livestock,” especially plants required for the production of palm oil and acacia pulp, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Fires burning in several oil palm areas in southern Borneo.
Image: OLI/Landsat8
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An image taken on September 15, 2019 (above) by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite shows fires burning in multiple oil palm areas in southern Borneo. Images taken in shortwave-infrared and in natural color were blended together to show where active fires are burning.

The smoke has gotten so bad that the government of Malaysia, which is located hundreds of miles away, sent a letter to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, demanding that it take urgent action to extinguish the fires, reports the Guardian. Malaysian officials are so desperate to rid their skies of smoke that they’ve seeded clouds, dispersing chemicals from a plane in the hopes of triggering rain. The country’s air force seeded clouds in three states over the weekend, with more attempts expected this week, according to Reuters. Unfortunately, the efficacy of this technique has yet to be proven.

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Firefighters stand amid burning trees in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, on September 18, 2019.
Image: AP

Wildfires in Indonesian forests and peatlands were first detected in August, but they’ve escalated in recent weeks.

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“They are really in the thick of another major event now. It is reminiscent of 2015, though the buildup of smoke started a few weeks later this year because of rains in mid-August,” Robert Field, a scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in the Earth Observatory press release. “The fire counts from... satellites have not been quite as high as they were in 2015 because of the late start, but the day-to-day increases in activity are now comparable to 2015,” he said, adding that it’s “worth keeping in mind that many of these fires are burning underground or in areas with such thick smoke that satellites can’t detect them.”

Adding injury to injury, these fires release copious amounts of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, along with fine particulate matter linked to negative health effects. Known as black carbon, these aerosols are tiny enough to enter the lungs, bloodstream, and even the placenta. Excessive exposure can lead to respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems, and premature deaths. Since the fires began, Indonesian health authorities have had to treat more than 40,000 people for acute respiratory infections, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

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Concentrations of organic carbon plumes over Indonesia.
Image: GEOS

Another upsetting image provided by the Earth Observatory shows the amount of atmospheric organic carbon in the skies above Indonesia. The image was compiled by the GEOS forward processing (GEOS-FP) model, which combines data from satellites, aircraft, and ground-based stations. By applying meteorological parameters such as air temperature, moisture, and wind, scientists can visualize and predict the movement the organic carbon plumes produced by the fires. In the image above, the smoke is largely stationary, lingering above the source of the fire due to gentle winds.

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Climate factors are certainly a contributor to these fires. Back in 1997 and 2015, the drought-like conditions that exacerbated these blazes were attributed to El Niño conditions. With no El Niño this year, Field has implicated a different but related phenomenon: the Indian Ocean Dipole. But human factors are also at play. Like in Brazil and the deliberate setting of fires in the Amazon, the blazes in Indonesia have a definite human origin.

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About the author

George Dvorsky

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.