NASA Data: 1997 All Over Again for Indonesia?

In 1997, fires caused by the El Niño burned across approximately 8 million hectares of land in Sumatra and Borneo and released as much as 2.5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Read more below to find out why we might see the same if not more destruction this year.

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Fire in Sumatra in February 2014. If fires return to Indonesia, they’d likely accelerate during the height of the dry season which coincides with July’s presidential election. Environmental issues have barely surfaced during recent political debates. 

The latest data from NASA shows that conditions developing in the tropical Pacific are eerily similar to those in 1997, when El Niño wreaked havoc across Indonesia, spurring a severe drought that exacerbated massive peatland and forest fires which spread choking haze across much of South and Southeast Asia. 

According to data from the Ocean Surface Topography Mission/Jason 2 satellite, ocean temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific are significantly warmer than usual due to slowing trade winds. The conditions are reminiscent of the same period in 1997. 

“What we are now seeing in the tropical Pacific Ocean looks very, very similar to conditions in early 1997,” said climatologist Bill Patzert of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a post on NASA’s Earth Observatory site. “If this continues, we could be looking at a major El Niño this fall. But there are no guarantees.” 

Oil palm plantation in Riau on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
The maps above shows the ten-day average of sea surface height centered on May 2, 1997 (left), and May 3, 2014. Shades of red and orange indicate where the water is warmer and above normal sea level. Shades of blue-green show where sea level and temperatures are lower than average. Normal sea-level conditions appear in white. The 1997 map was assembled from data collected by the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite, while the 2014 data comes from the Ocean Surface Topography Mission/Jason 2 satellite. Data courtesy NASA JPL Ocean Surface Topography Team. Maps by Marit Jentoft-Nilsen and Robert Simmon. Caption by Michael Carlowicz. 

The 1997-1998 El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO as the phenomenon is called, was one of the strongest ever recorded. In southeast Asia, the anomaly triggered a steep drop in rainfall, which when combined with land-clearing fires and severe forest degradation from logging, caused one of worst years in terms of carbon emissions. By some estimates, fires across some 8 million hectares of land in Sumatra and Borneo released as much as 2.5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The fires and associated haze also caused some $4.5 billion in damages from health care costs, transport disruptions, and reduced tourism. 

While there is still considerable uncertainty about whether El Niño will return in 2014, the Indonesian government is already making some preparations, including setting aside funds to stockpile rice. Yet if this year’s fires — which burned during the typical rainy season — are any indication, authorities are poorly prepared to curb practices that could drive an environmental catastrophe should El Niño bring drought to Sumatra and Borneo. 

This series of globes shows the eastward progression of a Kelvin wave — a giant wave of warm water — in February 2010. These conditions are typical of an El Nino year. Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory. Images by Jesse Allen, Kevin Ward, and Robert Simmon.