Planet Watch: Smoke Signals

Vast forest fires have scarred the globe, but the worst may be yet to come

Why are the world's forests burning? Why did uncontrollable fires cut a 7,700-sq.-mi. swath of devastation across Indonesia? Why have the blazes of Mexico sent plumes of smoke across Texas and Louisiana?

Here's the simple answer: El Nino. While that notorious weather system flooded some regions, it produced horrendous droughts in other areas, making half the world a tinderbox.

But that's too easy an explanation. Scientists suspect that something more fundamental--and frightening--is happening. In one country after another, flames are going where they've never gone before. "These fires are burning into virgin, humid forests that have evolved without fire," says Nels...

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