Indonesia's Peat Smouldering Underground

C. W. Gilbert blazingt at
Fri Nov 14 21:37:35 EST 1997

Environment News Service
By Claire Gilbert, Ph.D.*
Copyright 1997, All rights reserved

SARAWAK, Malaysia, November 13, 1997 (ENS) - For the first time in
three months, the air is clear. People in parts of Southeast Asia
breathed more easily as good winds and rain cleared the air of a
lot of the damaging particles from forest fires burning out of
control in Indonesia. The monsoon rain which would dampen the fires
has been delayed because of El Nino effects.
El Nino events are a manifestation of the El Nino Southern 
Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon.  The oscillation refers to the
normal flow of tropical ocean water either hitting a standstill or 
being reversed.
The El Nino effect has piled up heated ocean waters in the eastern
Pacific Ocean along the west coast of South America and brought
colder water to the Indonesian Pacific.
This means lower relative humidity for 12,500 Indonesia islands,
and conditions adverse to rainfall. Despite yesterday's stormy
downpour, the Pacific Ocean is still noticeably cooler than normal,
according to a map prepared by the U.S. Fleet Numerical Meteorology
and Oceanography Center today. During the worst air pollution
events, the air tends to be stable due to an inversion layer near
the surface from the cool surroundings, making smoke from fires
Cyclone Linda recently fanned the forest and peat flames. New
forest fires were also reported within the week. Burning peat,
itself, may be a catastrophe of major proportions.
>From satellites, 2 hot spots are currently seen in Java, 23 in
Sumatra, and 35 In Kalimantan, Indonesia. The latter shares Borneo
Island with the Country of Brunei and also Malaysia, including
Sarawak. On September 25, Sarawak had a reading of 800 on its air
quality index. Over 100 (or less) can affect some people adversely.
Reacting to the air pollution crisis, Tze-Hien (Clarence) Yong of
Kuching, Malaysia, set up a web site which gives daily readings on
the haze for a number of cities and a lot of other useful
information. He created the "Haze Online Report"
<> when Sarawak declared a state of
emergency on September 22. Yong proudly says, "We were the first
one reporting the disaster on the Internet."
The haze was already present for a month or longer before it caught
the world's attention when it skyrocketed in late September.
Sarawak, Malaysia, is downwind of the Indonesian forest fires and
gets the brunt of the haze.
The pollutants in the smoke from forest and ground fires are still
threatening the health of some 20 million Indonesians, the Suara
Pembaruan daily quoted Suryoputro of Diponegoro University as
saying. The deputy-dean of the medical faculty said up to five
percent of 20 million people had already been affected. The impact
on others will only be seen between two and 10 years from now.
Further, he told the Indonesia Times, pollutants could exacerbate
heart and asthma problems, while causing mental and brain
disorders, inflammation and respiratory infections, skin and eye
According to Forrest Mims, III, a scientific investigator, as a
result of the forest fires in Indonesia, there is an increase of
certain infectious diseases in the haze areas. This is also true in
areas affected by the forest fires in the Amazon. The increase in
infectious diseases appears to be correlated with a significant
reduction of ultra violet rays.
In recent days, Malaysia has "gagged" academics. They are no longer
permitted to make public comments on forest fires and the weather
without first clearing them with a supervisor. Ostensibly, the
reason is for accuracy in reporting, but some see this as an
abridgement of freedom of speech.
Jacqui Michel works in Sarawak for Research Planning, Inc., a U.S.
firm hired by the Malaysian government to help it plan a response
strategy to the haze, such as advising people to stay in during a
crisis. Michel says that Malaysia has a "response strategy" rather
than a preventative one.
The main air quality problem in Sarawak is particles rather than
gases from the forest fires, Michel says. One reason there is so
much particulate matter is that peat swamps are burning in
Indonesia, and they throw up a lot of carbon.
Lawrence Radke, a Senior Scientist at the U.S. National Center for
Atmospheric Research, was one of the primary researchers who
studied the oil fire smoke in Kuwait. He specializes in the study
of forest fire behavior. He says, with regard to protecting oneself
from a malignant haze, "A simple 3-M dust/mist mask can help
considerably to keep out the particles and gases from haze, lasts
a long time, and is cheap." It costs about US$4.00.
The amount of carbon these extensive peat fires can throw up into
the atmosphere is enormous, exceeding that of what Europe emits.
The emissions may also impact global warming in a positive feedback
loop - they will also make the forest burn more. When forests and
peat marshes are normal, they are a good carbon "sink," i.e., they
keep a lot of carbon from being in the atmosphere, helping to 
prevent global warming.
Peat fires are considered the most dangerous. Peat has accumulated
in lowland areas for 7,000 or more years and may be 20 feet deep.
When undisturbed, it serves to store rain during the monsoon
season, and slowly releases the moisture back into the air during
drier times. When heavy rains occur, the peat prevents flooding by
acting like a sponge.
The Center for International Forestry Research at Bogor, near
Jakarta, says the main pollution on Borneo was now coming from a
fire in a one million hectare area of peat being drained by the
government for a massive rice planting project. President Suharto
backs this project, intended to ensure Indonesia's self-sufficiency
in rice production.
When the peat is exposed, it quickly dries out. Once dry, it
ignites easily. Once burning, sometimes the fire goes deeply into
the earth and then cannot be extinguished, even by heavy rain.
There are still peat fires burning in the earth from 1983,
presumably when the last severe El Nino hit. Rain does not
extinguish deep peat or coal fires. They smoulder, like
self-combustion, underground indefinitely.
The current El Nino may be even stronger than the one in 1982-
1983, which some say was the strongest on record. It is possible
that overall global warming or climate change has increased the
frequency and severity of these El Nino events.
The action of burning forests (or even clearing them) may have
local, regional, and global effects. Forests act to hold carbon and
when the forest is destroyed, the result is more carbon and
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Removing forests heats up the
local area somewhat. In the case of a huge release of carbon by
burning peat, the regional and global climate is also affected.
Possibly when the monsoon comes, it will cause flooding or serious
acid rain. The monsoon may be delayed for a couple of months or may
not occur at all because of El Nino.
According to the World Conservation Monitoring Center, the fires in
Indonesia are now threatening at least 19 protected areas, all
internationally important, including a World Heritage site (Ujung
Kulon in Java), Ramsar Wetland (Berbak in Sumatra) and Biosphere
Reserve (Tanjung Puting in Kalimantan). These areas are protected
partly because they hold the world's biodiversity riches. The
forest fires are also a terror for wildlife.
A large number of endangered species are in the path of the fires.
Fruit-eating animals and birds such as orangutans and hornbills are
especially affected by fire, because the trees that they rely on
take many years to mature and fruit. These two species, like many
others, are already under tremendous pressure from severe habitat
Indonesia's Environment Minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmaja, said the
country's forests could take 500 years to recover from damage
caused by fires and logging, according to Michael Mundy, a
journalist in Kuala Lumpur.
Deliberately burning forests in the tropics in an El Nino year is
tricky business. The burning easily gets out of control. This puts
more carbon and other greenhouse gases in the air, putting more
pressure on climate change. Climate change can lead to still
stronger weather events, including El Ninos.
Malaysia has signed a regional agreement with other countries for
the purpose of managing forests and other resources better. The
general philosphy of Indonesia and neighbors, however, may be that
development is a trade off with the environment.
Radke says we need to look more at the consequences of what we do
instead of just the immediate actions, such as clearing forests or
swamps. He says, "Whenever you fool with factors that affect the
climate, some kind of changes will happen."
*Claire Gilbert is editor and publisher of a monthly health and
environment newsletter, Blazing Tattles, available by subscription.
Visit Blazing Tattles' Web Site for information
<> or send email to: 
<blazing at>.  Thank you very much.

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