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The Signal Fires of Global Climate Change

From the coast of Peru, up along the wealthy beach fronts of California, to the rugged shoreline of British Columbia, this was a winter of storm and flood. But 1998 may yet turn out to be the year of the fires - a year with a warning about human impact on Earth's climate and forests.

Massive forest fires are flaring up all over the tropics. They started last year in Indonesia where 8,000 square miles of rain forest burned, shrouding Kuala Lumpur and half of Malaysia and Indonesia with toxic smog. Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific burned too. Now fires have erupted in the Amazon, Mexico, and Central America, canceling airline flights to and from the region and sending a choking haze into places like downtown Houston and Dallas.

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Recently, the Brazilian government called for international help as 15,000 square miles of forest went up in flames threatening villages of the stone-age Yanomami Indians deep in the remote jungles of the northern state of Roraima. Out-of-control blazes were also reported in the northern Amazon threatening Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.

El Nio has parched the rain forests. They are pure firewood. In a matter of hours the burning - by large agro-businesses or peasant farmers to clear debris from beanfields, get rid of last year's weeds, or clear new land of virgin forest - can surge out of control. These blazes are almost unstoppable.

As Janet Jagan, President of Guayana, noted recently, "No army in the world can stop poor farmers from burning their fields." But an army of firefighters did try to fight the fires in Brazil. Reports described their efforts as near futile. The fires were extinguished only by an unexpected downpour following the desperate orations of local shamans.

More fires to come

The same changed weather patterns inundated dry California lands, turning them lush with new growth that will dry to create a more combustible summer of brush fires than usual. Forest managers foresee a bad burning season across the US West, as predictable drought follows the storms.

El Nio has reminded us how delicate are the balances that maintain the natural world that we have grown used to. El Nio's rise in temperature of a few degrees in the surface waters of the Pacific caused changes in weather patterns that set off a trail of fires, devastating rain forests, hurting fragile economies, and costing lives all around the world.

The effects of this El Nio seem dramatic as the global eye of television reports them, but the weather changes were nothing beyond historical experience.

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Yet even those modest changes - drought in the tropics, more intense storms in the temperate North - have caused destruction and death. Not only the scorched land left by the out-of-control farmers' fires where there was once a rich rainforest, but floods, the threat of new fires, and unexpected violent March tornados.

Learning from disasters

It is an important lesson for anyone wondering about global climate change. El Nio is natural, but humankind with its burning of fossil fuels and of rainforests appears to be manufacturing its own changes in the weather by altering the chemistry of the atmosphere.

No one can be certain of the consequences that will follow from our own unintended experiments with the Earth's climate, but global temperatures a few degrees warmer, more violent storms, floods, and more intense droughts all seem likely according to models developed by leading scientists. We're seeing that the consequences of such changes could be very costly and disruptive.

Last fall the National Weather Service warned Californians to prepare for the possibility of a severe El Nio. Six months later, disaster relief funds flowed to communities on the West Coast and in the South. No such system is in place worldwide and the vast impacts of El Nio this year should be a clue that the smoky days in Dallas and Houston will get worse if something isn't done soon.

The world needs programs to reduce the likelihood of massive, uncontrollable forest fires in the tropics. It will happen again, and it's likely to get worse as man-made climate change advances, and as more farmers move into the forest frontiers setting more fires to clear more land. The World Bank and United Nations could work together, in consultation with affected countries, to build national plans for future fire prevention and forest protection. This will cost millions of dollars now, but will save billions later.

These fires should be the wake-up call that our transformation of natural systems - forests and atmospheric chemistry - also merit a cultural shift to a more conservative approach, respecting the fragility of these systems and our dependence upon them.

There is no better place to start than in Brazil. From July to September even larger fires are predicted across the Amazon as El Nio continues and as farmers engage in their regular annual cutting and burning to clear land for crops and expansion of farmland into the frontier.

Farmers can learn how to control small fires before they turn into huge fires - firebreaks, watching the wind, and careful planning all reduce the risk. There could be help in monitoring and enforcement, or, more usefully, in telling farmers that illegal burning will be prosecuted, not ignored as is generally the case. Rapid-response fire crews and equipment should be on hand to move in much more quickly when things get out of control.

El Nio's warning

El Nio - the child - was named by Peruvian fishermen 100 years ago because they noticed changes in the ocean that coincided with Christmas. They took it as sign of bountiful changes on the way. But the changes that will come with new climate patterns are a threat.

Maybe it's time for more than a few wise fishermen to pay attention to the warning that El Nio is now sharing - thanks to CNN - with so many more of us.

* Nigel Sizer is a senior associate and Jonathan Lash is president of the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based independent policy group focused on global environment and development concerns.

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