From: Wendy Miles and Micah Fisher , MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published June 27, 2013 08:39 AM

Indonesia's fires are a global concern

During the smoky season, or "musim kabut" as it is called in Indonesia, skeletons of leaves fall from the sky and disintegrate like melting snowflakes in children's hands.

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Historically, Indonesia's smoky season has peaked at the end of the dry season (September-October), just before the monsoon rains arrive. This year the dry season just began, and yet Singapore's PSI (Pollutant Standard Index) record has already been broken — reaching a new high of 401 (Hazardous) on June 21, 2013. The air pollution in Peninsular Malaysia has also spiked to an all-time-high, resulting in Prime Minister Najib Razak declaring a state of emergency in Muar and Ledang districts on June 23, 2013.

Although the fires are of immediate concern at the regional level, they are quite disconcerting at the global scale.

The fires originate in one of Earth's carbon super-sinks: peat swamps. Hidden underneath Sumatra's lowland rainforests are thousands of years of partially-rotted tree trunks, branches, and leaves which never fully decomposed after their submersion into water. This dark under-world has the potential to become an inferno when exposed to air and ignited. Thus, as Indonesia's peatlands are drained and burned, one of the world’s greatest long-term carbon sinks is being transformed into a rapid carbon source.

Scientists estimate that during the Indonesian fires of 1997, between 0.81-2.67 gigatons of carbon were released into Earth's atmosphere (Page et al 2002). This is comparable to 13-40% of the fossil fuels emitted globally that same year, catapulting Indonesia to be ranked the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China and the USA) according to some indices.

The link between greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and sea-level rise is worrisome for Indonesia, a nation comprised of more than 13,000 islands.

Photo shows Smoke — visible from outer space — rising from Sumatra on June 19, 2013. (Photo source: NASA)

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