Forest fires last year resulted in record tree loss around the globe – climate change and El Niño were major factors. This is bad news for the world's carbon sinks, since fires release CO2 into the atmosphere.
A record 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million acres) of forest were destroyed in 2016, according to new data by Global Forest Watch.
Most of the forests were destroyed by wildfires, caused at least in part by climate change that has increased the risks and intensity of wildfires by triggering temperature rise and drought in some areas.
The weather phenomenon El Niño, which in 2015 and 2016 was one of the strongest on record, also played a role, having created particularly dry conditions in the tropics.
"We saw quite a dramatic spike in 2016," Mikaela Weisse, research analyst at the United States think thank World Resources Institute, which oversees Global Forest Watch, told news agency Reuters. "That seems to be related to forest fires in countries including Brazil, Indonesia and Portugal."
Deadly blazes in Brazil's Amazon region and in Indonesia's rainforest contributed together to one quarter of global tree loss.
Fires in Brazil destroyed 3.7 million hectares of tree cover — nearly three times more than was lost there in 2015.
The Indonesian fires in late 2015 saw almost a million hectares of trees burned to the ground. Although most fires swept through forests there in 2015, the subsequent tree loss wasn't recorded until early 2016.
Carbon sinks drained
Environmentalists are worried about the 51 percent increase of global forest loss compared to 2015.
"The numbers are alarming," Jannes Stoppel, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace, told DW. "To reach the Paris goal of 1.5 degrees [Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit], we cannot risk losing more forest cover — but need to increase its potential for CO2 removal."
Forest fires have a dual negative impact on the environment.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide, making forests a natural CO2 sink. Fires destroy those carbon sinks, while at the same time blasting extra CO2 into the air.
The wildfires in Indonesian forests and peatlands, for example, released so much CO2 that they made Indonesia the fourth-largest emitter in the world, overtaking Russia in just six weeks.
All this can have a feedback effect — more fires mean more carbon released into the atmosphere, which in turn drives climate change.
No end in sight
2017 might be another record-breaker for burning. Blazes have swept through parts of southern Europe, western Canada and the US this year.
Portugal, already devastated by forest fires in 2016 that saw some 4 percent of its forests go up in smoke, has again been hit by deadly blazes. Dozens of people died in wildfires in June, and again in October.
Wildfires in Canada in 2016 caused 7.5 billion euros ($8.8 billion) in damage. This year, the western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia saw the worst season for fires since records began, with more than 1.26 million hectares having gone up in flames by mid-October.
Forest fires were the primary cause for the record tree loss in 2016, according to Global Forest Watch. But agriculture, logging and mining also contributed to forest losses.
Environmentalists are urging governments to invest more in forest protection and restoration.
Governments have to "increase ecologically sound forest restoration and natural regeneration of ecosystems - leading to more CO2 storage and more fire resilient natural forest structures," said Stoppel from Greenpeace.