Costliest (and Deadliest?) Disaster of 2015: Indonesia's $14 Billion Fires

By Jeff Masters
Published: 4:05 PM GMT on October 13, 2015

Earth's most expensive weather-related disaster of 2015--and the most expensive disaster in Indonesia's history--is underway in that nation, where massive clouds of smoke from agricultural fires have choked the lungs of tens of millions of people for months. Indonesia's Center for International Forestry Research estimated the smoke will cost $14 billion in agriculture production, forest degradation, health, transportation and tourism, according to an October 9 article in The Wall Street Journal. Indonesia's Health Ministry says 20 million people--8% of the country's population--have been impacted by this year's haze; 120,000 of them have sought medical attention for respiratory problems. The disaster may also be the deadliest disaster of 2015, depending upon how one treats the difficult task of determining air pollution deaths. Over 10,000 adults are likely to die from pollution from the fires, judging by the results of a 2013 study in Nature Climate Change by Marlier et al., El Niño and health risks from landscape fire emissions in Southeast Asia. The researchers found that during the strong El Niño year of 1997, the extra smoke in the air in Southeast Asia likely caused an additional 10,800 adult deaths due to cardiovascular disease, and the fires of 2015 are putting a comparable amount of smoke into the air. (Globally, pollution due to fires between 1997 - 2006 was estimated to kill 532,000 people during an average El Niño year--about double the estimated 262,000 deaths that occurred in La Niña years.) Haze from this year's fires is also seriously impacting Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand. The haze in Singapore was so bad that it forced the cancellation of a "zombie apocalypse" competition last month.

Figure 1. Buildings (background) along Shenton way business district are blanketed with thick smog in Singapore on September 24, 2015. Singapore's air quality reached 'very unhealthy' levels on September 24, forcing schools to close, as thick smog from agricultural fires in Indonesia's neighboring Sumatra Island choked the city-state. Image credit: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images.

Figure 2. MODIS image of smoke from fires burning in southern Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia as seen from NASA's Terra satellite at 03:15 UTC September 24, 2015. The red squares are fires detected from the spacecraft. Image credit: NASA.

The culprit: El Niño-driven drought
The warm waters off the Pacific coast of Peru during a strong El Niño episode generate a column of rising air over the tropical Eastern Pacific. Once this rising air reaches the bottom of the stratosphere, which acts as a stable lid preventing further rising motion, the warm air is forced to spread out to the east and west along the Equator. This air eventually sinks over tropical regions well to the east and the west of the Eastern Pacific to complete a huge circulation cell several thousand miles in diameter. Since sinking air warms and dries as it descends, areas of high pressure and drought tend to form in these sinking air regions. To the west of the Eastern Pacific, El Niño events tend to create drought over Indonesia, New Guinea, and Northern Australia; to the east, drought commonly occurs over Northern Brazil. This year's El Niño event is one of the strongest on record, and has led to severe drought in Indonesia. Landowners commonly ignite(mostly illegal) fires to clear land and manage agricultural areas for production of pulp, paper and palm oil in Indonesia. Carbon-rich peatland forests, which are usually too wet to burn, go up in smoke. These peatland fires, which smolder underground, release about three times more smoke than a standard forest fire.

Figure 3. Smoke from huge fires in Indonesia drift westwards all the way to India in this GMS satellite image from NOAA taken at 04:25 UTC October 21, 1997. Image credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images.

The fires of 2015: comparable to the fires of 1997
Severe drought during the strong 1997 - 1998 El Niño hit Indonesia and neighboring countries, resulting in a series of massive peatland and forest fires that were triggered by slash-and-burn agriculture. The fires produced a noxious yellow haze that covered an area about 2000 by 3000 miles in area for months. Estimates of the economic damage to Indonesia alone were estimated at $9.3 billion by EM-DAT, the international disaster database, making it their most expensive natural disaster in history. The 1997 - 1998 fires were also the most expensive weather-related disaster in the history of Singapore (damages estimated at $9 billion by the Singaporean government, due to increased healthcare costs and disruptions to air travel and business.) According to the 6 November 2002 issue of Nature magazine, the fires in Indonesia released huge amount of carbon dioxide—equivalent to 13 - 40% of the total amount released annually from human burning of fossil fuels. Indonesia's yearly greenhouse gas emissions are somewhat uncertain, due to the large unknowns associated with deforestation and burning of their forests, but the nation may be the world's fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. According to an October 9 article at Climate Progress by Samantha Page, land use, including peat and forest fires, accounts for 63 percent of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions. In September 2015, Indonesia promised that it would not increase these emissions over the next 15 years if it receives international support.

Video 1. Greenpeace Indonesia drone video footage showing slash and burn tactics in Indonesia and peat fires in September, 2015. Instead of deep red flames tearing down trees, the smoke is actually emerging from underground from peat that is burning up to 10 metres (33 feet) deep; 40% of this year’s Indonesia fires have been on peatland. Peatland fires were also a major problem in Russia during the record heat wave of 2010.

Jeff Masters

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About The Author
Dr. Masters co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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