Climate change increase extreme weather patterns in Indonesia

by Nabiha Shahab

Jakarta – Continued and accelerating sea level rise will submerge coastal areas, causing irreversible loss, warned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their assessment reports. Under all emissions scenarios, the IPCC predicts coastal specific climate hazards will put a billion more people at risk in the next few decades, the BBC reports. It will take serious, concerted efforts to reverse the trend of global warming and achieve the target of keeping global temperatures under 1.5 C compared to pre-industrial levels.

Indonesia, the largest archipelagic country in the world, is particularly susceptible to the threat of climate change. With around 17,000 islands, large and small, the country’s coastline ranks among the longest in the world. Rising sea levels will almost certainly impact its small islands and coastal cities.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) Head of Climate Change Information Centre, Dodo Gunawan said that although sea level rise is found in small measurements in the Indonesian waters, “when combined with a few other weather variations, and marine weather phenomena including high tides or seasonal sea level rises, it still pose as disaster threats.”

“Areas on the north coast of Java for instance, such as Semarang, Kudus have experienced abrasion and often suffer from floods caused by high tides. In these areas, sea levels have increased permanently. On top of that, there are daily and seasonal variations that cause floods during high tides,” he explained.

Gunawan said that directly or indirectly, climate change has impacted weather patterns in Indonesia: “Tropical cyclones for instance, naturally are limited to 10 degrees north and south latitudes, but now have often impacted Indonesia.” Indonesia, located at 6 degrees north latitude to 11 degrees south latitude, has until recently been spared from the brunt of tropical cyclones. He said that extreme conditions caused by global warming are increasingly felt both in the land and seas.

“Such variations are indirectly the impact of climate change. Examples of extreme events, such as strong winds, hurricanes, are getting more intense, the frequency is getting higher and the intensity is getting stronger,” said Gunawan.

Seasonal land and forest fires

“What we experience now are intensely opposing hydrometeorological disasters – forest fire risks during the dry season, and during the rainy season there are looming threats of floods, landslides, and so on,” said Gunawan, adding that in 2020 and 2021 Indonesia experiences a lot of rain and thus lower fire events.

Global weather phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña, two opposing climate patterns, impacts weather, including above normal rainfall and extreme drought that causes lasting wildfires.

Large fires events that happen roughly every five years are made worse by the El Niño phenomenon. Thick smoke from uncontrollable forest and land fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan often blows over to neighbouring countries – Singapore and Malaysia – disrupting air transport, causing health problems and at the same time emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.

In 2002, a University of Leicester study estimated that peatland fires in Indonesia during the 1997/98 drought led to the release of 0.81-2.57 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. This amounted to a staggering 13-40 percent of global fossil fuel emissions. The disaster placed Indonesia among the world’s largest carbon emitters.

In 2015, forest and land fires reached more than 2.6 million hectares, mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan. A Harvard University research estimates that the 2015 event caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. According to the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB), the death toll in Sumatra and Kalimantan reached 24 people.

Carbon Brief noted that Indonesia ranked “the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2015.” The Indonesian government is committed to cut emissions by 29% independently and up to 41% with international support by 2030, from the “business as usual” scenario. The government claimed it has been successful in cutting deforestation rate and put in place financial instruments including legal basis for carbon pricing.

“In 2015 we saw very severe forest fires … that’s actually the turning point for us after seeing the impact of forest fires in these events. The government has started to change its strategy … and from the 2015 experience, our turning point (to stress our strategy) more on prevention. If (a disaster) has happened, it will be more expensive,” said Gunawan.

Didy Wurjanto, Head of the Working Group on Cooperation, Law and Public Relations, Peat and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM) confirmed Gunawan’s observation and said that “as we enter this year’s dry season, BRGM anticipates fire events by carrying out drought-prone peat wetting operations … as well as controlling damage to the peat ecosystem from fires so that it does not cause wider damage.”

He said routine wetting operations involve relevant and trained community groups who have been trained to operate canal blocking and drilled wells. Canal blocks are built to prevent peat water from flowing into rivers or other watercourses and keep peatlands wet for longer. Meanwhile, drilled wells are installed in the middle of peatlands and can be used to wet peat or as a source of water in fire fighting efforts.

Sea level rise increase cause higher potential of fire events

Managing and controlling forest fires, especially in fire-prone peatland areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan becomes more important as a recent study found that rising sea levels increase severity of forest and land fires in coastal areas.

“We were surprised to find that rising sea levels could potentially exacerbate fires in coastal areas in Indonesia,” the University of Göttingen study’s lead author Anggi Hapsari told this week. “Our findings underline how the interaction between rising sea levels and dry climate may contribute to massive forest fires even in relatively fire-proof ecosystems, such as pristine peatlands. This reveals the potential hidden impact of sea level rise exacerbating climate warming.”

The research led by the University of Göttingen found clues in the ancient peatlands of Kalimantan presenting a good indicator of rising sea level and increase of salinity in the otherwise freshwater peatland ecosystem and its susceptibility to fires.

In response to these study findings, Wurjanto said that BRMG will focus on drought-prone peat wetting operations, and maintenance of peat rewetting infrastructure, supported by routine patrols in fire-prone areas. The agency will also empower peat communities, providing packages or revitalisation assistance to Fire Care Community (MPA), and conducting rapid wetting operations for burnt peatlands.

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