Amazon fires or a cold front?

Sitting just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the winter sun in São Paulo tends to set shortly before 6 pm. However, by around 3.30pm on Monday afternoon, thick black clouds covering the city shrouded São Paulo in abnormal darkness. By 4 pm, the sky was near black, startling residents and provoking wild debates on social media.

On Twitter, “it’s 4 pm” became the number one trending topic around the country, with São Paulo residents posting

apocalyptic landscapes of their city, two hours before sunset. Initial reports from mainstream media were lighthearted, with <em><a href="https://hashtag.blogfolha.uol.com.br/2019/08/19/dia-escurece-do-nada-e-assusta-moradores-de-sao-paulo/">Folha de S.Paulo</a></em> tweeting that the city got dark &#8220;out of nowhere,&#8221; while <em><a href="https://noticias.uol.com.br/cotidiano/ultimas-noticias/2019/08/19/ceu-em-sao-paulo-escurece-as-15h-e-impressiona-stranger-things-ou-gotham.htm">UOL</a></em> compared scenes to something out of TV series Stranger Things and Gotham.</p> <p>The National Institute of Meteorology (Inmet) quickly responded by saying the darkness was caused by abnormally heavy low clouds and an incoming cold front, but Brazilian netizens had other ideas, sparking a minor moral panic on social media.</p> <h2>Smoke from the North</h2> <p>A number of Twitter accounts <a href="https://twitter.com/BeyondDShadows/status/1163535602798776321">suggested</a> that the darkness was in fact a smoke cloud which had traveled all the way from the northern state of Rondônia—some 2,400 kilometers away as the crow flies—where <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/06/05/amazon-forest-loss-environment/">deforestation efforts</a> have seen a huge upsurge in deliberate forest fires in recent weeks.</p> <p>Speaking to <em>Estadão</em>, Inmet meteorologist Helena Turon Balbino reaffirmed that the dark skies were in fact a weather phenomenon, formed by the convergence of moist winds coming from the south and south-east.</p> <p>This didn&#8217;t stop the frenzy on social media, with some users in São Paulo claiming there was a&nbsp; &#8220;burning smell&#8221; in the air, and that the dark afternoon was a direct result of the Jair Bolsonaro government&#8217;s lax policy toward deforestation.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h4 style="text-align:center"><strong><em>Also read</em></strong><br><strong><em><a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/08/21/amazon-rainforest-slowly-dying-images/">How the Amazon rainforest is slowly dying (in images)</a></em></strong></h4> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The truth lies in the middle</h2> <p>Indeed, satellite imagery has shown that elevated carbon monoxide levels from blazes in the Brazilian states of Rondônia, Mato Grosso, and Pará—as well as in Paraguay and Bolivia—are gradually spreading toward the Southeast of the country.</p> <p>However, while acknowledging that some smoke may have reached São Paulo, Alberto Setzer—researcher of Brazil&#8217;s renowned National Institute of Space Research (Inpe)—rubbished claims that fires in the Amazon may have caused the country&#8217;s biggest city to go dark on Monday. The institute itself stated that &#8220;the contribution of fires in Paraguay and Bolivia also exists, but it is not what causes the darkness.&#8221;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/co-concentration-1024x621.jpg" alt="High concentration of carbon monoxide in Acre, Rondônia, Mato Grosso, and Mato Grosso do Sul (but also in Bolivia and Paraguai) indicate ongoing fires amazon" class="wp-image-22556" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/co-concentration-1024x621.jpg 1024w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/co-concentration-300x182.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/co-concentration-768x466.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/co-concentration-610x370.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>High concentration of carbon monoxide in Acre, Rondônia, Mato Grosso, and Mato Grosso do Sul (but also in Bolivia and Paraguai) indicate ongoing fires</figcaption></figure> <h2>The burning Amazon</h2> <p>Regardless of the causes of São Paulo going dark on Monday, the matter has drawn attention to a far more serious issue currently raging in the North and Center-West regions of Brazil, on both sides of the country&#8217;s borders with Bolivia and Paraguay.</p> <p>Data from Inpe has shown that forest fires have increased 82 percent in Brazil this year, concentrated largely in the state of Rondônia, the south of Pará, and Mato Grosso. Cities with the most fires are also those which are leading the way in deforestation, leading to the conclusion that these blazes are largely started deliberately. Figures from Inpe also show that deforestation has increased by 15 percent in the last 12 months.</p> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/1548880-73-is-brazil-capable-of-protecting-the-amazon-on-its-own.js?player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <p>A local newspaper in the south-west of the state of Pará reported that farmers had organized a &#8220;Fire Day&#8221; for August 10, when local producers &#8220;backed up by the words of President Jair Bolsonaro&#8221; torched areas undergoing deforestation in a coordinated action to show the president they are willing to work. On this day, Inpe&#8217;s fire alert system saw the number of blazes rise 300 percent, and the region was shrouded in smoke for the following days.</p> <p>Jair Bolsonaro was elected last year with the support of the agricultural sector. Since taking office, he has promoted the need for Brazil to &#8220;sensibly extract the riches&#8221; of the Amazon rainforest. His government also rubbished satellite data from Inpe which indicated increases in deforestation, in a row which ended with the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/08/09/amazon-deforestation-bolsonaro-government-truth/">firing of Inpe director Ricardo Galvão</a>.

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BY Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall is a Scottish journalist living in São Paulo. He is co-author of A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.