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El Nino Special: Features Martin Wooster on BBC Radio 4

Posted on 13/01/2016

El Niño is releasing vast quantities of heat normally stored in the Pacific, causing floods, droughts and fires. Martin Wooster discussed the latest El Niño with Roland Pease on BBC Radio 4.

Martin Wooster, Geography staff member, Professor of Earth Observation Science and Divisional Director, NERC National Centre for Earth Observation has been studying the Indonesian fires exacerbated by the El Niño event. Martin Wooster and Sue Page (Leicester University) describe the devastating effects of these fires. Martin describes, "quite extreme" conditions on the ground in Indonesia, noting that their hotel rooms were filled with levels of carbon monoxide up to 30 ppm, which is sufficient to set of a European smoke alarm.  This was many miles from the fires themselves, and Martin says that whole cities in Indonesia experienced these types of conditions for days, weeks, or even up to a couple of months. The main health risk is probably from the particulates which accompany the gases like CO that are released by the fires. The levels of PM10 particulates for example, which can reach deep inside the human respiratory system, were far in excess of what is found in cities normally considered as highly polluted, for example Beijing or Delhi. During the most extreme periods, PM10 levels approaching 50 to 100 x the European air quality limit were recorded in Palangkaraya, where Martin and Dr Bruce Main, also in King's Geography Department, were based. Visibility was reduced to a few hundred meters and breathing without a mask was both unpleasant and unhealthy.

The emitted pollutants were in fact deemed harmful enough to create a "deadly event" covering large areas of Indonesia, according to Roland Pease. Hospital admissions rose very sharply during the fires, and an estimated 10,000 - 15,000 deaths can be attributed to the previous El Niño burning and the consequent extreme air pollution. Early estimates indicate that the current event has also led to the addition of at least 200-300 million tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere through burning, which is now largely in the form of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.  Burning occurs every year to clear and maintain land for farming in this strongly "human-modified" tropical environment, which has been made much more flammable by the draining of peatlands and the clearing of tropical forest over many decades. However, El Nino related droughts greatly increase the extent and longevity of the fires, and enables them to extend into the carbon-rich peatland soils as well as the overlying vegetation. Peat burns in a way that produces particularly high levels of air pollutants, giving rise to the extreme conditions noted during Martin's fieldwork. Discussions are now ongoing as to how the modified landscapes might be made less susceptible to these type of large scale fire episodes, but a priority should likely be to stop developing new plantations and agricultural activity on top of peatland areas, followed potentially by the "re-wetting" of existing drained areas once methods for doing this are properly tested and understood.

Listen to the full episode online here.

Watch the video made by Martin and Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) of fire and haze in Indonesia:  Where there’s smoke, there’s toxic gas: Inside Indonesia’s fire and haze

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