Humberto Barbosa, the observer of the Atlantic Ocean

Last week, smoke from forest fires coming surrounding the city of Mangai, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Africa, arrived at the Brazilian seacoast after crossing over 6,000 kilometers of the Atlantic Ocean. The situation was detected from satellite images showing the path followed by the smoke from the forest burnings in south-central Africa until it got to the Brazilian states of Alagoas, Pernambuco, Paraíba, and Rio Grande do Norte. The information was obtained and disclosed by the Satellite Image Processing and Analysis Laboratory (Lapis), connected to the Alagoas Federal University (Ufal).

Cities as Maceió, in Alagoas State, was exposed to 103 micrograms of pollutants per cubic meter from the smoke. That is four times greater than what is tolerable considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) that defines only 25 micrograms per cubic meter as the recommended pollutant limit. These high levels of measured pollution are capable of causing respiratory and cardiovascular health problems, as well as headaches. Monitoring is important for measuring health risks and also for guiding flights.

Humberto Barbosa (Foto: Herivelto Batista/MCTIC)

Humberto Barbosa, its researcher, coordinates Lapis. He can perform environmental monitoring in real-time from his chambers in Maceió by satellite over the entire Brazilian territory, even some other parts of South America, and Africa, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. All of this thanks to the EUMETCast África data collection system, implemented in May 2018.

Humberto Barbosa, told ATLANTICO, about the relationship of the forest fires in Africa to northeastern Brazil, regarding the role of the Atlantic Ocean, in the forest burnings in the Amazons and investments in science.  

Do these forest burnings that take place in Africa and the Amazons naturally, or is there a human intervention?

They occur both ways. The process of the burnings in the forests of the Republic of Democratic Congo is anthropogenic, which means there is human intervention. These burnings do not occur spontaneously. Most of the times, they are purposefully provoked. But, there is also a natural process. At this time of the year, the brush is drier, and there are finer material particles and more dust. And this dust is also naturally carried by the wind and thereby can cause burnings. 

Large-scale forest fires in Africa were previously the reason for international concern by the international community. The NASA (the North American Space Agency) satellite, on August 24 had detected 6,902 fires in Angola and 3,395 in the Congo.

Are these burning cycles common? 

There is a natural burning cycle, whether human interaction is greater or lesser. There are also other impacting factors, such as climate, topography, and seasonal effects. Burnings in Africa begin in April. There is a seasonal climatic coincidence in July, August, and September, whereas the forests in Africa, Brazil, and other regions, ar0und the globe, are more prone to burnings. They are drier, the humidity of the air and soil is lower, and the temperatures are higher. Next year the same thing will happen.  But that year we have a much more intense human sign that the climatic sign from these burnings is typical for this time of year. 

Is it possible to compare the deforestation of Central Africa to what takes place in the Amazons? What information do we have regarding the deforestation in Africa? 

We have made a great deal of scientific progress on the issue of burnings by monitoring and their mapping. We have a series of in-depth data, based on that information accounting for deforestation as well as burnings, as there is strong linkage from burnings to deforestation. That is not a legend. We cannot establish this for Africa, as we do not have those data available. However, we know that the practices of burnings in Africa are very similar to the practices taking place in the Amazons; based on the satellite images that are so intense in Brazil.

A Forest in Tshopo, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo:: Axel Fassio/CIFOR)

A phenomenon took place last month in São Paulo, where the sky became completely dark in the middle of the afternoon and surprised the residents immensely. That phenomenon was attributed to the burnings taking place in the Amazons. Is it also possible that a similar occurrence will take place in northeastern Brazil due to the burnings in Africa?

The dynamics involve the winds arriving from Africa blowing towards the northeast are different from the dynamics involving the Amazons and the southeast region. The material carried from Africa crosses 6000 km. of the ocean at high atmospheric altitudes; thus, the probability of that taking place is very slight. 

Oceano Atlantico satélite
It is possible to see the smoke generated by forest burnings and temperatures registered in Brazil and Africa on the map. Starting in August, the Country, as well as Africa, extending to the entire Southern region, Madagascar and Oceania, where forest burnings are usually practiced.

The Brazilian federal universities and scientific research entities have incurred financial constraints. Then how has this affected the Federal University of Alagoas and specifically its laboratory?

Science is very strategic for a developing country like Brazil, as it plays a fundamental role in decreasing regional and social inequalities. Here, it takes around five to six years to prepare top-notch human resources. Many of those students depend a great deal on scholarships as they come from unfavorable financial conditions. Some Brazilians think science is something less important as if science were like a picture on a wall, something used just as a decoration. However, science must be the basis for this purpose. 

I believe that cooperation between the government and universities help to attract new economic investments, resulting in improved quality of lives and further development. But, there is a misled strategy among governmental agents, in all spheres of influence, stating that science is not a good investment. 

Any government, whether it is conservative or liberal, must perform long-term strategic planning considering its investment in science, as a requisite for development. Some countries have achieved positive results due to their investment in the preparation of top-notch human resources. 

These are difficult moments, and the laboratory has been severely impacted. I can perform research, but at the same time, I cannot keep my students when they have been threatened to lose their scholarships, and there are no perspectives for improvement.