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Blowing smoke over the Amazon – a strange story or how to flip an average into a ‘record’ without changing the data

Catte Black

My original article about the media presentation of the 2019 Amazon Rain Forest burning season produced a good deal more controversy than any of us anticipated. I don’t know how many times in the past four days OffG admins and editors have had to say “no, we aren’t claiming deforestation is a good idea”, but it’s been a few.

We also received our first DDoS attack in a couple of months the day after it was published. So, even the hackers were pissed off at us.

Surprising as it may be to those who favor knee jerk spontaneity over reading and reflection, I don’t think deforestation is a non-issue.

Which is why I said so in my previous article. And why OffG has repeated it numerous times since on our Twitter feed.

But let’s expand.

And put it in emphasis.

I, along with most other non-crazy people, believe the total or almost total destruction of the Amazon rain forest in order to build mahogany end tables or provide McDonald’s with cheap beef would be a crime of unprecedented dimensions.

(Maybe someone would like to cut and paste this as an automated tweet in response to anyone else who says “oh wow dude, so if you were on the Titanic you’d be like “what, there’s no problem?”)

I just also happen to think the importance of the subject doesn’t make buying into media memes about it, or lying about the data, somehow ok.

I don’t think it justifies hysteria, or uninformed rants from people who think indignation is a legitimate substitute for research data (“look how ANGRY I am, if this doesn’t fix things, nothing will!”).

I think that is –

a) often colonialist and patronizing, assuming the issue is so simple your massive western brain can grasp it simply by semi-digesting a couple of headlines over your cornflakes (“oh my God Janice, the Amazon is burning down, send that charity the Guardian are recommending some money and pass the milk”)

b) counter-productive, if not devastatingly destructive.

I’m not sure when the notion gained currency that exaggeration, lies and distortion were somehow appropriate if the event being lied about/exaggerated was “urgent” or “serious” enough, but it’s an idea antithetical to reason and truth.

The corollary also expressed, that demanding factual accuracy about such events is equivalent to denying their importance is equally, if not more disturbing.

It’s a mindset that invites manipulation and uncritical acceptance of authoritarian-inspired panic memes

But I’ll talk more about that another time. This is a follow up to the original article from August 23. There have been some interesting developments in the last few days and I think we should note them.

Firstly, as has been observed BTL on the original article, the three sources we cited underwent quite extensive revisions very shortly after our article was published.

Science20.com is the most noteworthy of these. On August 24, the day after we published our piece, the article we cited was completely re-written, presumably by its original author, identified as Robert Walker. In fact the changes implemented are so bizarre I want to look at them in some detail.

Here’s the original version we cited, now preserved only as an archive. This is the first part of the text:

NASA Say The Amazon Is Burning At Below Average Rates – Yet Many News Stories Say Record Rates???

Short summary:Short summary: we have had wild fires for many years now in the Amazon, even in the tropical rainforest – mainly started by humans for forest clearing and ranching. It is not enough to impact significantly on the Paris agreement pledges yet though it is important in the long term if this continues for decades.

This image is beign shared with captions such as “The Amazon is burning at record rates – and deforestation is to blame”. NASA’s caption is that it is burning at less than average rates. Bit of a big difference there.

It shows smoke from fires in the Amazon region on 13th August 2019. These are not necessarily all forest fires. Some of these will be fires in pasture to stimulate new growth for the cattle.


NASA’s caption: “As of August 16, 2019, satellite observations indicated that total fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average in comparison to the past 15 years. Though activity has been above average in Amazonas and to a lesser extent in Rondônia, it has been below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database”

So, go to the Global Fire Emissions Database. and this is what you see:

The green line for 2019 there is a bit hard to make out, so here is a zoom in, as you can see it is way below the top line which is for 2005, with only a few data points, and is also below the 2003 line.

The BBC is misreporting it as a “record”

Big difference beteween(sic) “record” and “Less than average”. By “record” all they mean is that there are more than for 2018. It’s also greater than for 2017, but less than for 2016. That is not how the word “record” is normally understood. (OffG emphasis)

The ranchers use fire for forest clearing, “slash and burn agriculture” as it is called. That is because it is much easier to convert forest into grassland by burning it than to do it by felling the trees. Once it is cut, the way they manage the pastures is to reburn them every few years to clear out the brush and to get the grass to resprout.

So not all the fires you see are virgin forest. Many are controlled grassland fires, to get the grass to resprout. We do something similar in the UK where they do controlled burning of heather (muir burn) for grouse, sheep and deer. However, some of those fires get out of control (same sometimes happens for our moor fires) and burn the nearby forest at the forest edges.

So, not all the forest fires are deliberate clearing.

Also we do not risk losing the Amazon as a whole. That is something they used to think a few years back, but the research has moved on. A large part of the Amazon rainforest will remain through to 2100 even with high emissions – they survived the previous glacial minimum when it was warmer.

We do not need them for oxygen. This is just an urban myth. We have enough oxygen in the atmosphere already for thousands of years even if all the plants magically stopped producing oxygen.

The burnt areas do not become desert, but rather, regrow quickly as lower mass drier forests which given enough time over many decades and perhaps centuries would restore to tropical rainforest again – but in a warmer world some of them will turn to savannah with scattered trees, a habitat known as the Cerrada.

This is another article I’m writing to support people we help in the Facebook Doomsday Debunked group, that find us because they get scared, sometimes to the point of feeling suicidal about it, by such stories.

Do share this with your friends if you find it useful, as they may be panicking too.

This original version of the article is at pains to make certain things clear:

  • it calls the media to task for describing the burning as “record”
  • it says the Amazon as a whole is not under threat
  • it says the Amazon is not needed for oxygen, and this is just an ‘urban myth’
  • it says the burned areas do not become desert
  • it asks readers to share the article with friends who may be panicking unnecessarily

But then, on August 24, Walker apparently had a complete change of heart, decided panicking might be a good idea after all, took down the above version, and replaced it with this one.

Is Amazon Rainforest Burning At Record Rates? What Is The Way Forward?

Short summary: we have had wild fires for many years now in the Amazon, even in the tropical rainforest – mainly started by humans for forest clearing and ranching. It is not enough to impact significantly on the Paris agreement pledges yet, though it is important in the long term if this continues for decades. It does of course have major and immediate impacts on forest residents, nature services and the biodiversity in Brazil.

This image is being shared widely, for instance in National Geographic’s “The Amazon is burning at record rates – and deforestation is to blame”. Similarly, the BBC is reporting it as ‘Record number of fires’ in Brazilian rainforest.

Yet, NASA’s own description for this photo says that it is burning at close to the average for the last 15 years. So, what is going on here?

It turns out that the earlier 13th August [the date is an error, the article was from August 16, and updated August 22 – OffG] article gives the number of fires since 1st January but they use 1st May as the start date for the August 19 update.

There’s been a rapid increase of fires in the second half of August still continuing as of 24th August. it was at average levels or below average through to early August but had a huge uptick and is now close to the 2016 levels from 1st January and if it continues likely crosses them soon. But if you count from 1st May it is already way above recent previous years and close to rates last seen over a decade ago.

The new fires are more intense, near roads and show all the signs of being deliberate fires for deforestation. In addition, local farmers in Para district organized a “day of fire” on August 10th to show to Bolsonaro that they are ready to work and that they need to use fire to do so. So there is a clear link here. Bolsonaro however, in response to pressure internationally and also locally within Brazil has responded instead by sending in the army to stop the fires and he says that it is his duty to protect the Amazon. He also said clearly that these fires are illegal. There is also an investigation underway into the “day of fire”.

If they can stop the illegal fires this could make a big difference to deforestation figures for this year and indeed future years. There are more sustainable ways to increase the productivity of Brazil using existing land without impacting on the forest…

APOLOGIES – UPDATE FROM NASA FROM 19TH AUGUST – THEY NOW CONFIRM INPE INSTEAD OF SAYING IT IS BELOW AVERAGE

Previous version of this article was mistaken. I have made a copy on my website here (the comments on this article are based on that earlier version):

He then goes on to add some stuff about Trump and the G7, which isn’t in the first version. But then, after paragraphs of this interpolation, he reverts, way down the page, to many of his original non-panic points (scroll down and you will see what I mean).

This is very odd editing and the result is a car crash of clearly conflicting intentions. It’s not that the new text is revising the data or denying the claims it previously made. In fact it does not do this at all. Instead it uses a frenzied avalanche of words and non sequitur to give the impression it’s denying the claims, while it ends up actually re-affirming them elsewhere on the page.

In so doing, it replaces the cogent data points and arguments it previously used with the same vague claims of loosely-defined exceptionality you can read in the MSM, that imply a weight of ‘record’ significance but never say what that significance actually is. Such as:

It turns out that the earlier 13th August article gives the number of fires since 1st January but they use 1st May as the start date for the August 19 update.

This is presented as if it were an explanation of why NASA was claiming the fires were average at the same time the mass media were hyping “record” fires. But it’s obviously no such thing, as I go into further on.

And this:

The new fires are more intense, near roads and show all the signs of being deliberate fires for deforestation.

Maybe so, but since they are still well within the 15 year average, what difference does this make in any environmental sense? None is the obvious answer. Certainly neither Walker nor anyone else citing these points attempt to suggest any.

Further down the page it still has an approximation of the sections quoted above that attempt to debunk the alleged myths about the Amazon being essential for oxygen-production etc, though the wording has been toned down. It carries the same videos that try to put forest fires in a historical perspective (worth watching if you have the time).

On the question of the comparative amount of burning, the first version says:

By “record” all they mean is that there are more than for 2018. It’s also greater than for 2017, but less than for 2016. That is not how the word “record” is normally understood.

The new version says:

it was at average levels or below average through to early August but had a huge uptick and is now close to the 2016 levels from 1st January and if it continues likely crosses them soon

This is the same information, just the spin has been changed. And this is confirmed by the fact the same 17-year graphs that appear in the first version, showing 2019 to be an average burn year are re-posted in this version, just further down the page and with a rider added drawing attention to the ‘sudden’ rise in August.

Prominently displayed in the new version are four graphs from globalfiredata.org, the other website we referenced in our original piece. This website had also been updated August 24, and the graphs added.

As we can see the thick black lines showing burning activity for 2019 are highly striking and certainly appear to support the media contention that 2019 is “record-breaking,” and eliminate all the doubts previously being expressed.

But on closer inspection, they have simply been constructed to make the 2019 burning look as “record” as the headlines were already claiming.

To achieve this two things have been done to the data.

1) the earlier years that are included in the other graphs from the same source, and which all had much higher burn rates than anything more recent, have been eliminated from these new graphs. The rather thin rationale for doing this is the VIIR/MODIS measure only goes back to 2012.

2) They start the sample in May rather than in January. No rationale is given for this at all, and it’s hard to see any beyond the fact that excluding the earlier months is the only way to make 2019 stand out as being “record” in line with media claims.

NASA’s website has made a similar journey over the same period.

This article, which we originally quoted, still says the burn activity in the Amazon is “close to average” and explains that a lot of farmers burn their land in the dry season.

As of August 16, 2019, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicated that total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years. (The Amazon spreads across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and parts of other countries.) Though activity appears to be above average in the states of Amazonas and Rondônia, it has so far appeared below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database, a research project that compiles and analyzes NASA data

This one, referenced by Walker and published just before his revised piece, might superficially appear to contradict the above claim, but – in a similar fashion to Walker’s piece – actually doesn’t if you look closely:

MODIS active fire detections in 2019 are higher across the Brazilian Amazon than in any year since 2010. The state of Amazonas is on track for record fire activity in 2019.

What NASA has done here in order to be able to claim a ‘record’ where previously there was an ‘average’ is simply switch from a fifteen-year analysis in the first article, to a nine-year one in the second. As I already pointed out above in relation to the revised graphs, this removes all the years of major burning this century and instantly shifts 2019 much further up toward the top of any comparative table.

Note also that NASA’s claim is not really true. Even within these somewhat distorted parameters 2019 is NOT higher than any year since 2010. As of today (August 27) 2016 is still just higher in total activity, and of course the earlier years of the 21st century were much higher again, but have been eliminated, apparently just for the purpose of making 2019 look a bit more “record-breaking”.

What we have here, in both the sceince20.com article and in NASA’s ‘update’, is interpretation-manipulation being passed off as data-update. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion this is a direct attempt to make their pages fall in line with the current media hysteria.

Looking at the wider issue, it’s pretty clear an orchestrated campaign to create unique panic and fear about the Amazon forest fires was initiated, not because the 2019 fires were uniquely dangerous, but because public fear was perceived as useful for promoting an agenda.

What agenda? I think it’s too early to get a comprehensive answer there. Many straws blowing in the wind. It’s been suggested Bolsonaro, the new imperial puppet, may have been proving a little antsy and required pulling into line. Or that it’s a concealed attempt at strengthening his position while appearing to attack it.

There’s this little straw in the wind that shouldn’t be ignored:

An “international treaty” would certainly be a nice cover for exploitation of the Amazon’s riches. It can’t be discounted as one possible motive for fomenting a fake crisis where only an endemic problem exists.

Or this:

Or this:

UPDATE: And this amazing piece of coincidental timing from Naomi Klein (any more of these world-burning memes people spot over the next few weeks, let me know):

There are no shortage of possibilities once the question “cui bono?” is asked.

If that question isn’t asked, if it’s outlawed as “unhelpful” or “conspiratorial”, we can become trapped in a refusal to interrogate. And that can lead to disaster.

Too many of us become utterly trusting as soon as our hot button subjects are on the front pages. People who know the media is utterly corrupt can still switch off their critical thinking when it starts to venture any opinion they can agree with.

Commentators who deride the absurd media lies about the Skripals or Corbyn or Syria or Russia still share the Environment page of the BBC or the Guardian, as if somehow honesty and integrity are guaranteed there.

George Monbiot, serial liar and lunatic when it comes to Syria or western foreign policy, is trusted to be an honest broker when he talks about climate change or veganism, or saving the whales.

It’s too easy for any one of us to tell ourselves the mainstream journalist who is saying what we want to hear must have a good and honest reason for saying it.

It’s so comforting to just shut off the critical awareness and drift on the cloud of manufactured ‘popular opinion’. Seductive to be in the majority for once. Reassuring to have someone do the thinking for us so we can, just for a bit, ride easy in their wake.

But the problem is then we end up signing up for Avaaz. Or cheering on the invasion of Iraq – because of those scary WMDs, or thinking thank goodness the G7 are going to do something about those terrifying “record” Amazon fires.

Because we forgot that the mass media and the body politic serve the super-rich, the financial institutions, the intelligence agencies and no one else.

And they always lie, because they always need to hide that simple fact.

*PS – I STILL don’t support the destruction of the rain forests.