South America’s Pantanal region, the world’s largest tropical wetland on earth has been ablaze for months now.
The blazes have already consumed about 28% of the vast floodplain that stretches across parts of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. They are still not completely under control.
The fires have destroyed unique habitats and wrecked the livelihoods of many of the Pantanal’s diverse indigenous communities. But their damaging impact reaches far beyond the region.
The Pantanal wetland is an effective carbon sink that absorbs and stores more carbon than they release. At roughly 200,000 square kilometers, the Pantanal comprises about 3% of the globe’s wetlands and plays a key role in the carbon cycle.
Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) has detected more than 21,200 fires in the Pantanal biome so far this year, a figure that is already 69% higher than the full-year record from 2005, when INPE recorded roughly 12,500 fires. There were 8,106 fires in September alone, more than four times the historic average for the month.
The Pantanal’s distinctive habitats rely on what scientists call the “flood pulse.” During the wet season between November and March, three quarters of the plain gets flooded, only for much of the water to drain away during the dry months, from April to September.
This seasonal flooding makes the Pantanal a unique biome where large swaths of land regularly turn from terrestrial into aquatic habitats and back again.
The area is home to thousands of endangered or unusual species, including jaguars, capybaras, black caimans, giant otters and hyacinth macaws. It’s also an important stop on the routes of around 180 species of migratory birds.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature the Pantanal boasts the greatest concentration of wildlife in South America, higher than that of the Amazon.
But this year’s dry season has been the most severe since the 1970s.
Occasional wildfires are normal in the Pantanal, so much so that some plants in the region developed resistance to fires by growing thick bark or covering their seeds with hard shells. But the unusually dry conditions this year have seen the blazes spread further and faster because there were fewer natural water barriers. Even areas that normally stay wet have turned into dry.