A record number of wildfires are burning away large areas of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, according to the country’s space research agency.

As of Wednesday, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE in Portuguese) revealed satellite data showing that a staggering 74,155 fires in Brazil have been sweeping across its forests.

This represents an 84-per-cent spike in fires compared to last year, with more than half of the fires occurring in the Amazon region. In fact, since last Thursday, there have been 9,507 new forest fires in the region.

The smoke from the fires has even been seen from space. On Monday, wind blew smoke across Brazil and briefly formed an eerie blanket of darkness in cities as far as Sao Paulo -- which is 2,700 kilometres south of the fires.

The destruction of the world’s largest rainforest -- which is more than half the size of Canada -- has deeply concerning global consequences.

The rainforests, nicknamed the “Lungs of the World,” produce up to 25 per cent of the oxygen in our atmosphere, act as a vital buffer for greenhouse gases and curb human-made climate change.

But with more of the Amazon destroyed, the effects of climate change will likely be magnified.

The Amazon is also home to approximately one million Indigenous people and more than three million species of plants and animals. About two-thirds of the rainforests are in Brazil.


Dozens of environmental groups are arguing that the recent fires aren’t solely the result of Brazil’s naturally occurring dry season.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who’s advocated for more logging and farming to clear the region, recently fired the head of the space agency for publishing other deforestation data. Bolsonaro claimed they were inaccurate and smeared Brazil's global reputation.

Conservationists have blamed Bolsonaro for stripping away Indigenous land rights and allowing for the rapid easing of environmental restrictions. This has included not clamping down on cattle ranchers who are illegally deforesting certain areas of land.

Environmental advocates argue that, since Bolsonaro took office in January, the Amazon has been destroyed at a faster pace than before.

So far this year, there were more than 74,000 wildfires. For comparison, INPE recorded a little more than 40,000 fires in the same period of 2018 and 68,000 fires in 2016.

When confronted by reporters, Bolsanaro claimed that the fires were part of the "queimada" (or the burn), which is when farmers use controlled fires to clear their land.

But he also suggested -- without any evidence -- that the fires were being set by non-government organizations whose budgets have been cut, according to The Associated Press.

Bolsanaro said this was "to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil." Some NGOs there have blamed Bolsanaro’s “pro-development” policies for the spike in legal and illegal deforestation.

On Tuesday, Copernicus, the European Union Earth Observation program, tweeted satellite images of their own showing how the smoke from the fires had reached the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite the range of the fires, the NASA space agency said the overall fire activity in the Amazon was actually slightly below average this year – with the states of Amazonas and Rondonia seeing an increase, while others saw a decrease.

Esri image of Amazon forest fires