The fires that spread across the Amazon this year are claiming another victim beyond the millions of acres they burned: Andean glaciers, which are melting at a faster pace because of particles released by the burning.

Biomass burning in the Amazon is producing black carbon that is being carried by wind to glaciers a thousand miles away, according to a study published in Nature. That black material darkens glaciers and accelerates the rate of melting, the study says. The acceleration in turn threatens water supplies to millions of people who depend on the glaciers melting at a regular rate.   

“Biomass burning over southwestern Amazonia cannot be considered a regional issue to be faced but instead has social implications at the continental scale,” the scientists, including Newton de Magalhães Neto from Rio de Janeiro State University in Brazil, wrote in the study.

Climate change brought about by greenhouse gas emissions has been shown to be the major cause of the shrinkage of glaciers worldwide. This study proves that the release of particulate matter is also contributing to this phenomena that threatens water supplies not only in South America, but worldwide.

Fires take place each dry season, but have mushroomed as government policies encourage development of the Amazon. Brazil’s cities were blanketed with smoke and airports were shut in August as ranchers and farmers cleared land in the world’s largest rainforest. Environmentalists point to the policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as responsible for the surge in burning, while he’s blamed the fires on activists such as the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

“Biomass burning over southwestern Amazonia cannot be considered a regional issue to be faced but instead has social implications at the continental scale.”

The scientists studied data collected between 2000 to 2016 and found water runoff from Bolivia’s Zongo Glacier increased by 4.5% in 2010 during the peak period of Amazon fires. The shrinking glaciers imperil water supplies of more than 75 million people.

The deforestation of the Amazon not only boosts greenhouse gas emissions and pollution while melting glaciers, it also threatening the production of açaí and other commodities. Soybeans, meat and wood products are among Brazil’s top eight exports, but the country has also seen an surge in the shipments of sustainable resources that would be lost if the rainforest disappears. Brazil nuts and cocoa pods are products that can be harvested without hurting the Amazon.

“We believe that our results are of great relevance for the awareness of decision-making governs, people involved in land use politics and people affected by the use of melting waters from the Andes,” the authors wrote.

  • The burning of biomass, once touted as a way for Europe to curb carbon emissions, has been shown to bolster the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere.
  • Officials in New York and Los Angeles have proposed that city departments stop doing business with companies that contribute to deforestation in the Amazon, CBS reported.
  • The Amazon is threatened not only by fire, but the loss of trees due to logging, ranching, farming and more. Scientists and economists argue that saving the forest can’t be accomplished by conservation alone, and sustainable development must be part of any plan.