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Researchers say sea change can forecast South American wildfires

(Xinhua)

15:55, November 11, 2011

WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 (Xinhua) -- Tiny temperature changes on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans provide an excellent way to forecast wildfires in South American rainforests, according to University of California, Irvine (UCI) and other researchers funded by NASA.

"It enables us three to five months in advance to predict the severity of the fire season," said UCI assistant project scientist Yang Chen, lead author of a paper that will be published on Friday in the journal Science, in a statement.

Wildfires, once rare in tropical forests, have become a major threat to humans and biodiversity across an "arc of deforestation" in Brazil, Bolivia and Peru due to clear-cutting and agricultural burns. The study's authors said that the new findings could aid fire and public health officials, planners issuing burn permits, and broader efforts to stem climate change.

Rainforests are vital carbon dioxide storage basins, and woodlands consumed by fire across the southern continent are responsible for about a quarter of the greenhouse gases released from forests globally.

The prediction method is similar to that for storms. Just as sea surface temperatures can be harbingers of powerful Atlantic hurricanes or El Nino conditions that influence rainfall in California and elsewhere on the Pacific Rim, they can be used to model drought-inducing atmospheric changes. Utilizing archival satellite data from NASA, Chen and fellow scientists plotted a decade of water temperature variations and wildfire duration and intensity across central South America.

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