Case Study: How Scientists are Using PurpleAir to Study Indonesia’s Peatland Fires
- Topic: Peatland Wildfires in Indonesia
- Industry: Air Quality, Air Quality Technology, Community Development
- Author: Adrian Dybwad
- Website: PurpleAir.com
Slow-burning and relentless peatland wildfires are causing poor air quality. They release higher levels of air pollution than forest fires. Their impact crosses communities and national borders. Moreover, they can burn for weeks to months as underground smoldering occurs.
With the majority of Southeast Asia’s peatland located in Indonesia, they’re at even higher risk of the impact of peatland wildfires. It’s reached the point that tens of thousands of annual premature deaths are attributed to peatland wildfires.
However, a team of researchers is working to minimize their impact on air quality, the environment, and the surrounding communities with the help of the data from PurpleAir air quality monitors. Not only that, but they also hope to prevent it entirely as they look for data-driven solutions to the problem.
What are Peatland Wildfires?
Peatland wildfires occur when the vegetation of this type of wetland catches fire. These often burn slowly, lasting for up to days or weeks. They're also harder to extinguish because the fire can go deep into the ground, known as underground smoldering, and reach far areas.
While peatlands are fire-resistant due to their nature as wetlands, they’re becoming more vulnerable because of frequent droughts, rising temperatures, and deforestation. This is also further exacerbated by land-clearing practices, like crop burning.
How Do Peatland Wildfires Affect Air Quality?
Peatlands form when dead plants accumulate on water-logged land, slowing their decomposition. Because these dead plants store carbon dioxide for decades, peatlands contain large amounts of carbon. In fact, they hold 44% of all soil carbon despite covering only 3% of the global land surface area.
As such, peatland wildfires release extraordinarily high amounts of carbon, emitting ten times more carbon than forest fires. They also release high levels of other toxic air pollutants, including particulate matter, methane gas, and carbon monoxide.
Why are Peatland Wildfires a Significant Problem in Indonesia?
According to an air quality study, Indonesia contains 65% of Southeast Asia’s peatland carbon, the largest in the region. This means that Indonesia’s peatland wildfires don’t only pose a risk to their own country but also to the entire world.
In 2015, Indonesia experienced one of the worst peatland wildfires in history. It burned for four months, destroyed 623,304 hectares of land, and released 0.002 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.
The wildfire smoke also traveled to neighboring countries, like Singapore and Malaysia, affecting more than 500,000 people. It also threatened one-third of the world’s orangutan population and cost Indonesia at least $16 billion in economic losses.
Worse, particulate matter concentrations during the wildfire reached 2,483 milligrams per cubic meter, limiting visibility to 30 meters. These levels far exceed the World Health Quality (WHO) air quality standards, and exposure can lead to serious health issues. The diseases WHO listed include cardiovascular diseases, respiratory disorders, lung cancer, and early mortality.
Recently, the Environmental Health reports that the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions from Indonesian peatland wildfires resulted in a total of:
- 36,000 yearly premature deaths in adults and infants
- 4,390 additional respiratory hospitalizations
- 8.9 million lost workdays
How Scientists Are Advocating for Wildfire Action and Prevention
While peatland wildfires might cause irrevocable damage to air quality, they are preventable. By studying their behaviors and air pollution emission levels, we can guide communities on the best plan of action to prevent them and minimize their damage. This was exactly the objective of a group of air quality researchers when they traveled to Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia, to better understand peatland wildfires.
For their study, they equipped locals with indoor and outdoor PurpleAir quality monitors. They also connected the monitors to the PurpleAir Map. This way, they could study how wildfire smoke travels and how it affects indoor and outdoor air quality.
Additionally, the researchers worked closely with Kalimantan Lestari (KaLi), an air quality organization led by a consortium of universities in the United Kingdom and Indonesia. Through this, they involve the community in learning more about air quality and peatland wildfires.
According to another air quality study, Indonesia could have done the following if they had practiced peatland restoration efforts before 2015:
- Prevented 12,000 premature deaths due to air pollution-related illnesses
- Reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 18%
- Reduced particulate matter emissions by 24%
Thankfully, KaLi and their team of researchers are working continuously to mitigate these wildfires. They use the data from PurpleAir air quality monitors to help gain evidence-based insights on the best course of action to take in their battle for better air quality.