Fires are burning at record rates in the Amazon, which produces 20% of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere.
Amazon Rainforest
Credit: Nacho Doce/Reuters

If you've been on social media this week, you've likely seen viral videos and photos of Brazil's Amazon rainforest on fire, accompanied by captions decrying the lack of coverage of the destruction. For many of us, the news seemed to have come out of nowhere, but the fires have actually been raging for several weeks.

Here's what's been going on in Brazil — and what you can do to help.

What's Happening

Though wildfires often occur during the dry season in Brazil, the country's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported a drastic increase in forest fires this year. According to NPR, the agency says there have been 74,155 fires in Brazil so far in 2019, most of which have erupted in the Amazon — that's a more than 80% increase over last year, and the biggest leap since the agency started recording this data in 2013.

NASA has also reported that the number of fires could be "record-setting," and the smoke can even be seen from space.

How the Fires Started

Again, while forest fires often occur during this season, BBC reports that conservationists have blamed deforestation (clearing forests for conversion of forest land to farms, ranches, or urban use) for the increase in fires this year.

“In the previous years [wildfires] were very much related to the lack of rain, but it has been quite moist this year,” ecologist Adriane Muelbert told National Geographic. “That leads us to think that this is deforestation-driven fire."

According to BBC, conservationists have blamed Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, claiming that he has encouraged the clearing of land by loggers and farmers, which is speeding up deforestation of the rainforest.

“The dry season creates the favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” INPE researcher Alberto Setzer told Reuters.

Why This Affects Everyone

According to CNN, the Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere, and it's considered vital in slowing global warming as it takes in carbon dioxide and stores it in soil. The largest rainforest on the planet, the Amazon is also home to countless endangered species of plants. In short, the Amazon plays a major role in regulating the climate for the rest of the planet.

How the World Is Responding

As news of the fires began going viral on social media, there was outcry over the lack of global response and coverage, from major conservationist organizations as well as celebrities who got involved.

How the Brazilian Government Is Responding

As NPR reported, Bolsonaro has baselessly blamed the fires on nongovernmental organizations, suggesting that they've been setting the fires themselves in retaliation for Brazil scaling back its usual funding support for them.

The controversial president has been criticized for his administration's environmental policies. According to BBC, last month, he accused INPE of lying about the scale of deforestation in order to undermine the government. The accusation came after INPE published data showing an 88% increase in deforestation in June compared to the same month last year. INPE has insisted that its data is 95% accurate, and the agency's reliability has also been defended by scientific institutions including the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

On Thursday, Bolsonaro said the fires were being investigated but said that the government lacked the resources to fight the flames.

VIDEO: A Record Number of Fires Are Currently Burning Across the Amazon Rainforest

What You Can Do to Help

While all of this may seem overwhelming and devastating, there are some things you can do to make a difference. Shyla Raghav, climate change lead at Conservation International, says even small steps can help, like spreading the word about the crisis and limiting your consumption of products that are driving forest loss, like non-FSC certified wood and many types of meat.

Here are a few other ways to help:

  1. Sign Greenpeace's petition to help save the Amazon.
  2. Donate to protect an acre of rainforest land through the Rainforest Action Network.
  3. Donate to the Rainforest Trust to help buy land in the rainforest.
  4. Donate to Amazon Watch's efforts to help protect the rainforest's indigenous populations.
  5. Volunteer or donate with the World Wildlife Fund.
  6. Protect an acre of forest through Conservation International with a $25 donation.

"Don’t lose hope," Raghav says. "All of us are part of the solutions, and countries like Colombia and Ecuador have made incredible progress in protecting their forests. It’s possible to solve this problem."