Is Climate Change Behind the Recent Devastating Wildfires?

The 21st century has seen our climate being drier and hotter. Researchers have found correlation between climate change and climate variability which affects lightning patterns, moisture conditions, temperature, precipitation and vegetation. These factors combine to give rise to more wildfire occurrences. The recent devastating wildfires from Australia, the United States and the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil has demonstrated the drastic impacts of climate change and set a reminder of our climate urgency.

Forest and fires are related to each other. In practice, the sick or dead trees are burnt to clear the forest or restore the growing capacity. Studies show that up to 85% of wildfires are caused by human activities such as unattended campfires, cigarettes, equipment use, burning of garbage or dried vegetation [3]. Every year millions of acres burn in wildfires across the United States or other parts of the world and climate change is making these fires worse. Studies show that more than 80 % of wildfires in United States are caused by people and once a fire starts, it becomes difficult to put out. As per the wildlife statistics of United States [1], every year since 2000, an average of 71,300 wildfires burnt an average of 6.9 million acres. This figure is more than double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s (3.3 million acres), although a greater number of fires occurred annually in the 1990s (78,600 on average). These devastating wildfires are not beneficial as it impacts the health of our ecosystem.

 Studies [2] were conducted by the researchers considering the average results of 17 climate model simulations to understand how the potential for very large fires is expected to change. The results show the increase in the number of very large fires (more than 50,000 acres) predicted in the western United States by the middle of the century (2041-2070). The map below shows the projected increase in the number of “very large fire weeks”— periods where conditions will be conducive to very large fires—by mid-century (2041-2070) compared to the recent past (1971-2000). The projections are based on a higher-emissions scenario called RCP 8.5, which assumes continued increases in carbon dioxide emissions. The darkest shades of red indicate that up to a six-fold increase is predicted across parts of the West.

Map of United States showing the risks of large wildfires.

The quick facts on global wildfire statistics [3] is provided in the table below:

Facts

Source

The 2019–2020 bushfire season in Australia was the most talked-about wildfire event to occur recently, burning over 46 million acres of forest, including over 10,000 buildings

The Guardian

 

2018 was the year of the most destructive, costliest, and deadliest wildfire to occur in California, wildfires of 2018 statistics reveal

Insurance Information Institute

The world’s deadliest wildfire was the Great Black Dragon Fire, which occurred in northeast China, burning over 3 million acres (in China) and over 18 million acres in total (in the USSR)

Guinness World Records 

Estimates indicate that 47 million acres were burnt as part of the 2003 Siberian Taiga fires, which occurred in Russia, according to statistics on wildfires

WorldAtlas

 

8.4 million acres of forest were burnt during the Northwest Territories fire of 2014 (Canada) as pointed out by wildfires worldwide statistics

WorldAtlas

 

The Israel Mount Carmel fire that occurred in 2010 led to the death of 44 people while burning down 41 square kilometers of forest

Earth Observatory

The 2019 South Korean Gangwon wildfire burnt down 1,307 acres of land and forest while also destroying more than 2,000 buildings

BBC

 

The 2003 Portugal wildfire destroyed 10% of the country’s forests, while also causing considerable damage and 18 deaths

BBC

 

The Siberian wildfires of 2015 and 2019 burnt millions of hectares of Siberian forests while also killing a few dozen people and destroying thousands of homes

BBC

 

The 2005 Australian Eyre Peninsula bushfire, commonly referred to as the Black Tuesday fire, resulted in 192,650 acres being burnt down while destroying some 93 houses in the process as well

WikiMili

 

The Australian Black Saturday bushfire (2009) burnt over 1.1 million acres while also destroying 3,500 or more buildings and killing hundreds of people

Black Saturday Fires

 

 

How climate change can affect wildfires?

Temperature, soil moisture, and the presence of trees, shrubs, and other potential fuel, which have a strong direct or indirect correlation to change in climate conditions can also lead to wildfire risks. In practice, fires are used to clear dead trees or clear the part of the forests, but the hotter temperatures may cause drier forests and hence are more prone to burning. The increase in temperatures can evaporate moisture from the ground, causing drier conditions and flammable vegetation. The early melting winter snowpack are also leading to longer dry periods for the forests. In the recent times as the temperature and drought conditions are rising with increase in greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect more wildfires and longer fire seasons. The warmer and drier conditions may also contribute to increase in number in insects that can weaken or kill trees, which further acts as fuel to the fires.

 

Impact of wildfires

The increasing wildfires are not beneficial for the ecosystem and can have severe impacts:

  • Wildfires may displace plants and animals, deplete soil quality and cause risk to life, property and public health. The smoke may sear lungs, reduce air quality and cause eye and respiratory illness especially among children and the elderly. We have already seen the disastrous impacts of Australian wildfires in 2019-2020 and the recent California wildfires.
  • It may lead to increase in temperatures, causing the risk of increase in drought and decline in natural water resources like mountain snowpack.
  • The increase in wildfires are expected to decrease the ability of forests to support economic activity, recreation and subsistence activities.
  • Wildfires release significant amount of carbon dioxide, contributing to further climate change.
  • Wildfires shall significantly increase the expenditure of the Federal and the States budget.

 

What we can do to build resilience?

We can reduce the likelihood and impacts of wildfires by:

  • Stopping the burning of dead trees or the dried vegetation. Removing them from the forests that are at risk.
  • Develop recovery plans and implement plans immediately when fires break out to reduce the disastrous impacts.
  • Discourage developments and set out boundaries near fire-prone forests.
  • Join climate movement and take climate actions urgently.

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