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Asia Minute: Indonesian Fire Season Already Sparking Concerns

NASA Earth Observatory

Fire season in Southeast Asia won’t reach its peak for several months. But parts of Indonesia are already being hit with forest fires and heavy haze.

Indonesia’s military has used aircraft to fight fires on the island of Sumatra this week. Government officials say a specially equipped plane was sent to seed clouds – using tons of salt to make it rain.

Air pollution reached hazardous levels on Monday — forcing schools in the area to close.

It’s become a grim annual watch gauging damages from fires in Southeast Asia.

Researchers from Harvard and Columbia found that fires in 2017 may have led to the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people. That study published in the journal “Environmental Research Letters” said most of the deaths took place in Indonesia, but others died in Malaysia and Singapore.

2017 was an especially harsh year with El Niño conditions creating drier than usual weather. Forecasters are predicting similar conditions this year, and Indonesia’s government has declared an emergency in 16 provinces to put them on alert for fires.

Separately, new research shows other health damages caused by hazy fires twenty years earlier. Scientists from Duke University found children born around the time of extensive fires in 1997 were more than an inch shorter than they otherwise would have been at age 17.

That study was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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