Fires in the Amazon reached devastating new levels in 2020, new NASA satellite imagery shows. The space agency developed a new tool to track fires from space after Brazil’s Amazon suffered a record-breaking year of fires in 2019.

Specialized sensors on satellites collect visible and infrared imagery, which NASA uses to detect thermal anomalies — basically hotspots caused by fire. Its satellites found 1.4 million of those anomalies in the Southern Amazon last year, compared to 1.1 million in 2019.

“Fire activity was up significantly in 2020,” Douglas Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in the announcement today. “All types of fires contributed to the increase, including deforestation fires and understory fires, the most environmentally destructive types.” The effects of these kinds of fires can last for decades.

NASA grouped fires into four different types marked on this map: fires caused by deforestation to make way for industry (red), uncontrolled fires that burn the understory of the forest (green), fires burning in savanna-grasslands (blue), and small fires set by subsistence farmers to clear land (purple). NASA looks at the duration, intensity, and movement of fire “hotspots” to identify what kind of fire is burning.Image: NASA

The numbers are even more alarming considering how bad 2019 already was. That year, Brazil suffered a more than 80 percent jump in the number of fires compared to 2018, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Since entering office in 2019, Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has worked to open up the Amazon to more development and set aside less land for Indigenous tribes and conservation efforts. NASA found that Indigenous territories saw fewer fires compared to other lands without protections.

Clearing the rainforest to make way for ranches and agriculture is a process that can take several years of logging and burning.Image: NASA