The Amazon Is Burning

6:11 minutes

a colored satellite image of a green forest, with large clouds and trails of smoke jetting from it
The smoke from the fires in several states within Brazil, including Amazonas, Mato Grosso, and Rondônia. Credit: NASA

The Brazilian rainforest is experiencing a record number of fires this year—an 83% increase over 2018. Since last week, smoke from an estimated 9,500 fires has blocked out the sun for thousands of miles, covering cities like São Paulo in a dark cloud.

Environmental agencies and researchers suspect the fires are human-caused, cattle ranchers and loggers who are looking to clear the land for their own use. And they have been encouraged to do so by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who campaigned on a promise to help Brazil’s economy by exploring the Amazon’s economic potential. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo, gives us a rundown of the unprecedented destruction currently underway. Plus, NASA gears up for a mission to Jupiter’s moon, scientists solve one of the biggest mysteries in chemistry, and other stories in science this week.

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Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Ladies and gentlemen, the Amazon is burning. The Brazilian rainforest is experiencing a record number of fires this year, an 83% increase over 2018. 70,000 fires. How do you set them that fast? 70,000 have blocked out the sun for thousands of miles, covering cities like Sao Paulo in a dark cloud.

Environmental agencies and researchers suspect the fires have been set by people, cattle ranchers and loggers perhaps who are looking to clear the land to grow cash crops. And they’ve been encouraged to do so by Brazilian president Bolsonaro, who campaigned on a promise to help Brazil’s economy by exploring the Amazon’s economic potential.

Joining us to tell us about this unprecedented burning of the Amazon rainforest, as well as other short subjects in science, is Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo. Welcome back, Ryan.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It’s good to be back, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the Amazon. What’s happening there right now?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So the Amazon is burning at an alarming rate. We’re talking maybe a soccer pitch sized area every few minutes, 82% more fires than last year. This is more extreme, and sort of 2016 was an extreme case.

And as far as we know, it is due to sort of the business because of clearing of the land and Bolsonaro’s government. Brazil’s new president Bolsonaro is sort of scaling back the enforcement of the illegal burning of the forest. And it is encouraging businesses to then go in and then start clearing what is essentially the lungs of the planet.

IRA FLATOW: Just, it’s amazing. It’s scary, isn’t it?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I mean, I lose sleep over it. This is as bad as it gets.

IRA FLATOW: And of course this has everything to do with climate change, too. Doesn’t it?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. I mean, the Amazon is responsible for taking carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s responsible for putting oxygen back into the atmosphere. And this is the kind of thing that if we lose the Amazon, we’re losing a vital piece of the fight against climate change.

IRA FLATOW: I know you love to talk about astrophysics. I know you feel like I do, that you got to talk about the Amazon because it is life on Earth. But let’s talk about physics for a little bit. Let’s talk about LIGO scientists who are reporting that they have detected what they think is a black hole colliding with a neutron star. Why is that a big deal?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Well, so LIGO’s already detected the evidence of two black holes colliding. And that was a huge deal because of the gravitational waves that we found here on Earth. And then shortly after, they discovered two neutron stars colliding, where a neutron star is a dead star about the diameter of a city that’s even heavier than the sun.

And so this is completing that trifecta. So we’ve got two black holes, two neutron stars, and now a black hole and a neutron star. And I mean, it’s exciting to see new things. And again, the detection is based on the gravitational waves, and it’s more stuff coming from LIGO.

IRA FLATOW: Isn’t that fun?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, it’s great. I mean, I like this.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s a fun thing to think about. And for people who don’t remember what a neutron star is, what is a neutron star?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, so it’s a super dense object. It’s about, let’s say, the same size as like Brooklyn across. But then it’s as massive as the sun. So it’s just mind boggling to think about these things existing, but it’s the corpse of a star that’s died.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a good way to put it. And there must be many of these going on, and this might be just the first one that–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. So there actually has already been a couple of potential detections of this kind of event. And this seems to be one of the strongest ones, but LIGO is now running full steam ahead. So the hope is that we continue to detect these weird kind of events, and then hopefully, one day, actually see if there’s a electromagnetic light component to this with our telescopes.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s continue on our weird, OK? Because let’s go talk about chemists actually creating a different kind of carbon.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Ira, you like graphene, right?

IRA FLATOW: I love it.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: You love graphene. So this is–

IRA FLATOW: I use it every day.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Every day, right. So graphene is a two-dimensional allotrope of carbon, which just is– it’s just carbon. And diamond is a three-dimensional network of carbon. So now scientists have created and looked up close at a single dimensional ring of carbon. So it’s just carbon in a ring, 18 carbon atoms.

And they are using atomic force microscopy, so they use these– it’s this microscope with an atomic sized tip. And they make a precursor molecule, and they knock off the scaffolding. And then they have this crazy single dimensional carbon ring.

IRA FLATOW: People don’t realize they can make their own graphene with some scotch tape–

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, scotch tape.

IRA FLATOW: –and a pencil.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. This is just another– this carbon ring is another cool kind of carbon, and it’s showing all the weird ways that we can make carbon into these different forms. And then they have these interesting electronic properties. So the hope is maybe these carbon rings will be useful for like a low energy computing.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on to some more– we have a lot of exciting stuff.


IRA FLATOW: The NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is moving into the final phase. Remind us about what that mission is about. That’s exciting also.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, yeah. So Jupiter’s moon Europa has potentially a liquid water ocean underneath. And we know thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope that it actually has these plumes of water that it spews into the air over Europa. Now the hope is that if it has a water ocean, well, then maybe there is some sort of biological stuff going on. Maybe there’s life down there. And if we had a Clipper, we could fly by Europa and maybe either sample the plumes, look at this moon up close, and look if there’s any sign of something interesting going on down there.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. It seems like the search for life is big out there in the solar system these days.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, I mean, the Earth is only one way we know that life could be formed. Maybe there’s other– I mean, in the bottom of our own ocean, we have such interesting life forms that rely on the sort of chemistry– the chemical potentials in order to live. And maybe that’s happening deep in Europa. Who knows?

IRA FLATOW: And because we know there are some really hardy organisms living right here on Earth are impervious to all kinds of insults, maybe they could be out there also, right?

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Right, extremophiles they call them, right? So they live in the salt. They live in the heat. It’s awesome.

IRA FLATOW: Great. Thank you, Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo.

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Thanks, Ira. Always good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Good to have you back.

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Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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