Monday, September 23, 2019

Climate Change: Indonesia and burning carbon-rich peatlands

Heavy smoke hangs over the Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung as well as Kalimantan (73% of the island of Borneo, excluding East Malaysia and Brunei). This thick smoke comes from the peat fires that have engulfed these peatlands. On September 11, 2019, NASA/NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite using the VIIRS instrument  (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) captured this dramatic photo of the smoke rising from these islands in Indonesia.

In August 1883 the eruption of the Krakatoa (Indonesian Krakatau) volcano on Rakata Island between Java and Sumatra, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), was one of the most powerful in recorded history. Explosions were heard 2,200 miles (3,500 km) away in Australia as ash and rock was blasted to a height of 50 miles (80 km) in the atmosphere.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Krakatoa threw into the air nearly 5 cubic miles (21 cubic km) of rock fragments, and large quantities of ash fell over an area of some 300,000 square miles (800,000 square km). Near the volcano, masses of floating pumice were so thick as to halt ships. The surrounding region was plunged into darkness for two and a half days because of ash in the air. The fine dust drifted several times around the Earth, causing spectacular red and orange sunsets throughout the following year.

The remanent of Pulau Rikata is now called Pulau Krakatau.

In recent decades, Indonesia has become a leader in draining rain forest peatlands, then setting fires while polluting its own atmosphere and that of neighbouring countries.

 
This isn't just burning trees and destroying rich biodiversity. Peatlands are stores of carbon that have accumulated over thousands of years.
 
Peatlands, which only cover about 3% of the world's land surface, store 30% or more of land-based carbon. This is twice as much as all the world’s forests combined, according to the Ramsar Convention’s Global Wetland Outlook.
 
Indonesia exported US$16.5bn of palm oil in 2018 (54.5% of total exports) while Malaysia exported $8.7bn (28.6%). Burning by small farmers, local elites and big corporations is the cheapest way to clear the rain forest.
 
Global Forest Watch Fires has reported that there were over 67,000 fire alerts in Indonesia in the period 15-22 September 2019.
 
What is called ‘haze’ has caused daily pollution since early September in Singapore and parts of Malaysia but of course the greatest number of victims has been in Indonesia.
 
“Ahead of the dry season, everyone should have been prepared,” President Joko Widodo of Indonesia said on September 17 during a meeting with officials in Sumatra’s Riau province, one of the worst-affected regions. “But we’ve been negligent again [this year], so the haze has become big,” he added.
 
Apart from poor administration, corruption is also a big factor.
 
In 2015 extreme weather conditions caused by the El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific, which increases ocean temperatures in the Southern Ocean, delayed the monsoon rains and led to drought across the country. When the peatlands are drained the peat could smoulder under the surface for months. 
 
According to the World Bank daily emissions from Indonesia’s fires in October 2015 exceeded the emissions from the entire US economy – that is more than 15.95m tons of  CO2 per day.
 
Fires in peatlands are a significant source of global CO2 emissions according to Stanford University research, with fires in Indonesia in 2015 emitting an equivalent of the 2013 fossil fuel emissions of India or Japan.

Currently, CO2 emissions from drained or burned peatlands amount to 10% of all annual fossil fuel emissions and fires on peatlands release three to six times more particulate matter — in the form of minute separate particles — than fires on other types of soil.

Peatlands are located across the world and Ireland, lacking significant coal resources, has relied on peat (turf) as a fuel for centuries. The poem 'Caoineadh Cill Cáis / The Keening of Kilcash' written in Gaelic, "Cad a dheanfaimid feasta gan adhmad/ tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár" ("Now what will we do for timber/ with the last of the woods laid low?") in the 18th century lamented deforestation. Today Bord na Móna (the State peat board) which has 2,000 direct employees and another 2,000 in support industries, is winding down its traditional activities. It has 200,000 acres of land and is investing in wind and solar power, and in recycling.

Researchers in recent times updated data on tropical peatlands: 

"South America hosts the most tropical peatland both by area and by volume (ca. 44% for both). This is partly related to a few large deep peat deposits that had not been mapped previously. However, the most important newly mapped peat areas are extensive shallow peat deposits in the Amazon Basin.

This new analysis also shows that Asia has extensive peatlands, and hosts 38% of both tropical peat area and volume, with Indonesia as the main regional contributor. Indonesia also still holds the deepest peat deposits in the tropics. Africa hosts more peat than previously reported but climatic and topographic contexts leave it as the least peat forming continent, despite of some massive peat deposits such as the Cuvette Centrale in the Congo Basin."

This was Indonesian "haze" in downtown Kuala Lumpur on the morning of September 11, 2019. The Petronas Twin Towers are on the left (the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004, and remain the tallest twin towers today.) According to the Department of Environment on that day, Shah Alam, a KL suburb, recorded an Air Pollution Index (API) reading at 133 — the API readings between 0 and 50 are categorised as good, 51 to 100 (moderate), 101 to 200 (unhealthy), 201 to 300 (very unhealthy) and 300 or above (dangerous).
I was in Europe for most of September and my night image of the Petronas Twin Towers, taken in Mont Kiara, 7 km from downtown KL, shows a clear nighttime sky at 11:05 pm, September 27, 2019.
The sun rising in Kuala Lumpur after 7:00 am, September 28, 2019.

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