NASA satellites have detected more than 100,000 fires in Indonesia since the beginning of 2015. In the last week alone, NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, carrying MODUS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) sensors, identified at least 3,200 fires. As a result of these fires, Indonesia recently leapfrogged Russia as the world’s fourth-biggest emitter of carbon. In fact, at present, Indonesia’s fires produce more CO2 than the entire U.S. economy. In nearby Singapore, smog and haze have led to the closure of primary and secondary schools. Basically, these fires suck, but they’re so rampant, and so destructive, that they’re virtually impossible to suppress.
So, who’s to blame for all the fires?
Well, the truth ain’t pretty. Most of these fires are caused by the deliberate, and often illegal, transformation of tropical forest and peatland into agricultural land, which is then used for the production of palm oil. Incidentally, palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, and is found in everything from foods to cleaning products to makeup to lots of other things I can’t think of. Popular American brands like McDonald’s, Costco, and Kraft depend on cheap palm oil to deliver their products to the market – and we know how much Americans love their Big Macs and Kraft Singles. Of course, palm oil can be, and is being, produced in a sustainable manner. Since 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has sought to establish protocols for non-harmful production, and over half of all RSPO-certified oil is produced in Indonesia. But as long as consumer demand for the stuff remains high, it’s safe to assume that the unsustainable production of palm oil will continue.
As a quick afternoon project, I decided to visualize all of the satellite-detected fires in Indonesia during the week of November 1st to November 7th, 2015. I was particularly interested in exploring the density and distribution of the fires, and so instead of simply plotting all 3,000+ fires as individual points, I generated a heatmap (by counting the number of fires within 100km of each cell in a country-wide grid), and then extracted contours at 25-unit intervals. These abstracted forms help to illuminate the (literal) fire hotspots. I decided to exclude a legend because I didn’t want to give the (false) impression of geographic specificity. I also produced a version of the map using the original point data, but highlighted hotspots by linking each point’s opacity to the brightness of the corresponding fire, a variable captured by the Terra and Aqua satellites.
Anyway, check out the maps, and let me know what you think. If you’re interested in seeing a real-time interactive map of the fires, I encourage you to check out the Global Forest Watch Fires Beta, which my esteemed colleagues at WRI are currently developing. It’s pretty cool.