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Should we compare Amazon forest fires to those in central Africa? | #TheCube

By Seana Davis
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We spoke to an expert to find out whether we should be more concerned about the ecological impact in Africa than South America.


A NASA map has been widely shared on social media with people claiming it shows there are more fires in central Africa than in the Amazon rainforest.

We spoke to an expert to find out whether we should be more concerned about the ecological impact in Africa than South America.  

What are the red dots across NASA's forest management map?

We interviewed Professor Bob Scholes, a systems ecologist at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, to find out what the map shows. 

"The graphs that are being displayed in the media are graphs of the number of hot pixels detected. So very very sensitive satellite in space which can detect a fire as small as the garden fire you might make to burn rubbish in your back yard," he said.

Professor Scholes continued to detail how the type of land fire also plays a part in the widely shared heat maps. 

"It simply counts the number of hotspots it sees. You can't translate that directly into area burned because a lot depends on whether that fire is burning in an open visible area or whether it is burning under the canopy of a tree."

What are the differences between the fires in sub-Saharan Africa and those across the Amazon rainforest?

Professor Scholes highlighted two differences between the two, the first being linked to the heat maps, and detectability of fires by satellite. 

"Just because the number of fires seems far greater in Africa than it is in Brazil, it doesn't mean necessarily that the ecological damage is greater in Africa than in Brazil," he said.

Professor Scholes said that "it depends where they are burning and exactly how much area is burned which you can't tell from those numbers of hot pixels".

"The second issue is if you look at the distribution of where the hot pixels are in Africa at this time of the year, they are almost all in savannahs not in rainforests," he said drawing attention to where the land is burning. 

"Now it's not a good idea for rainforests to burn - that's extremely damaging to them and the biodiversity they contain, but savannahs have to burn. That's part of their evolution. They've burnt for the last seven million years and there's nothing unusual about this. It is possible that there are forest fires in Africa as well as in the Amazon but they are not what is being talked about at the moment."

Is there an area of concern?

One area of concern on the continent is Madagascar, an ecological hub. "There are two different areas of Madagascar. On the eastern side of Madagascar, there is a real problem with fires because they are burning into rainforests and it's the very same situation you get in the Amazon. In other words, it is fires associated with the clearing of rainforests.

"Over the western part of Madagascar, most of the vegetation is associated with savannahs and those would be normal." Professor Scholes said that many are concerned over the apparent increase of fires across Madagascar, although he notes that he is unsure as to whether thy have risen this year.

Watch the item in the video player, above, for more.

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