The Pantanal, the world’s biggest tropical wetlands, is being devastated by record wildfires.
Here are five things to know about this unique ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What are wetlands?
Wetlands are regions that are largely covered in water part or all of the year.
Other major wetlands include the West Siberian Lowland, the Congo River Basin and the Mississippi River Basin.
These watery ecosystems tend to be covered in aquatic plants specially adapted to their hydric soil.
The Pantanal, which is typically 80-percent underwater in wet season, is also known for its wealth of wildlife.
The annual rains, which start in October, bring huge numbers of fish into the floodplain, drawing numerous bird species and, in turn, predators going up the food chain.
Where is the Pantanal?
Situated below the Amazon rainforest, the Pantanal stretches from western Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay.
About 62 percent of the Pantanal is in Brazil.
The region’s total surface area is estimated at 224,253 square kilometers (86,585 square miles), a little smaller than the United Kingdom.
Why is it burning?
The Pantanal is having its worst drought in 47 years.
Rainfall plunged by half for the period from January to May, usually the height of rainy season.
Researchers are still studying the factors driving the drought.
Climate change is a top suspect.
Studies show deforestation in the Amazon is having an impact on rainfall in other regions by shrinking the rainforest’s so-called “flying rivers”: clouds of mist that dump water across a large swathe of South America.
The fires are also being driven by the conversion of land for agricultural use and the introduction of non-native plant species more susceptible to fire.
How bad is it?
An estimated 23,500 square kilometers, more than 10 percent of the Pantanal, have gone up in smoke since January.
There have been a record-shattering 14,764 fires in the Brazilian Pantanal this year, according to satellite data from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) — already an annual record, and increase of 214 percent from the same period last year.
What is at stake?
The Pantanal is one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, with nearly 1,300 animal species and more than 3,500 plant species, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Disruptions to the water cycle threaten its delicate ecosystem, whose famous wildlife includes the endangered hyacinth macaw and shrinking population of jaguars.