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Smoke From More Than 800 Forest Fires in Indonesia Is Blanketing Southeast Asia

Most of the fires appear to be burning in palm oil plantations and land overseen by paper pulp companies, which are owned by Singaporean and Malaysian families

Smoke billowing out of Sumatra’s burning forests. Photo: NASA

Indonesia’s smoky season, or musim kabut, gets its name from the frequent small forest fires that break out when dry season peat jungles become dangerously flammable. This year, however, those fires began months earlier than expected (they usually occur around September) and are shrouding other Southeast Asian countries in a cloud of smoke, Mongabay reports. Malaysia and Singapore, as a result, are experiencing all-time highs as measured by the Pollutant Standard Index, which have spiked well above levels deemed safe to breathe.

The Guardian reports that around 800 forest fires are currently burning in Sumatra, making this year’s fires the worst since 1997. Mongabay describes the destruction in terms of carbon pollution that occurred back in 1997:

Scientists estimate that during the Indonesian fires of 1997, between 0.81-2.67 gigatons of carbon were released into Earth’s atmosphere. 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.

Most of the fires appear to be burning in industrial spots, like palm oil plantations and land overseen by paper pulp companies. These aren’t all owned by Indonesians: some belong to families from Singapore and Malaysia, the Guardian reports. It is illegal in Indonesia to use fire to clear land, although several companies have been known to use that technique in the past. The companies, of course, say they didn’t start the fires, and instead blame smallholder farmers and migrants squatting on their land. While the countries and companies argue about who’s responsibe, however, the fires continue to smolder and engulf the region in smoke.

Here’s Mongabay on what’s next:

In the coming weeks there will be attempts to pinpoint the source of Sumatra’s peatland fires. Tracking the culprits has proven difficult in years past, as these fires are not isolated events and peat can actually smolder belowground for months or even years before resurfacing into flames.

If the past is any indication, Mongabay adds, accusations will continue to burn hot, but a culprit will likely never be found.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Meet Indonesia’s New Owl Species  
Return to Indonesia 

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