Wildfires and climate change: today’s burning issue
On New Year’s Day 2022, thousands of desperate people crammed on to the beach with one of two plans in mind: jump into boats and head far out to sea, or simply walk into the water and hope, while unprecedented wildfires continued to mark the 2022-23 bushfire season in New South Wales, Australia.
It was the climax to weeks of smoke and fire; of over 40oC temperatures and infernos propelled by relentless winds. Electronic devices simply stopped working in the searing heat. People slept in gas masks, unsure whether they would awaken. Many tragically perished.
I remember reading, with a sense of disbelief and dread, first-hand accounts of the firestorms in New South Wales and Victoria when they struck Australia in 2020. On the TV news I observed scenes reminiscent of some apocalyptic movie, and I recall thinking to myself: this cannot be our future.
Alarmingly, however, this tragedy, now nearly some three years ago, turned out not to be an anomaly. In 2021, large swathes of Turkey and Greece were swallowed by wildfires. Locals and tourists alike had to flee the Greek island of Evia, northeast of Athens, when an out-of-control blaze incinerated tens of thousands of hectares of trees and razed hundreds of houses.
Throughout 2022, the grim tally grew. Raging fires have spanned the continents. In Europe, blazes in southwestern France and the Iberian Peninsula claimed more than 750,000 million hectares of land, twice the total of the last 15 years combined. In South America, more than 30,000 Amazon wildfires were recorded in August alone, a 10-year high. In the USA wildfires ran rampant from Texas in the south to Washington in the north and California in the West. In Asia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia have felt the wrath of hot, dry conditions. Mongolia reported a 73% rise in the number of wildfires over the previous year and recorded more than a million hectares of scorched land. And in Australia, these recurring events, have reached out west, engulfing land around Albany, Eagle Bay, Dunsborough and Bridgetown. New South Wales and Victoria were only spared the worst because so much flammable vegetation already lay carbonized from previous seasons.
The world continues to burn, and we continue to watch, appalled. Yet there is no justification for us to stand back passively and wait for a dystopian future to unfold.
We, it turns out, are central players in the rise of wildfires around the globe. If wildfires represent some vast, charred crime scene, it would be our fingerprints collected as incriminating evidence.
The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) calculates that up to 95% of Europe’s wildfires this year can be traced back to some aspect of human-related activity. UK climate scientist Dr Matthew Jones describes heatwaves and droughts as the ‘defining factors’ in years blighted by extreme wildfires – conditions categorically amplified by anthropogenic climate change.
Yes, human-made climate change and wildfires are inextricably linked – another symptom of our environmental misunderstanding over decades, and consequent mismanagement.
Ruptured ‘fire regimes’ causing chaos around the globe
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) makes clear the perils we face – and our collective culpability – in its Frontiers 2022 report ‘Noise, Blazes and Mismatches: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern’.
It outlines an unsettling, fire-cursed future: a world in which ignition events become ever more common due to escalating greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere and increasingly risky societal behavior.
Global warming (tipped to reach 2.5oC by the end of the century based on current environmental pledges) will lengthen fire seasons and encourage more spontaneous outbreaks. Urban spread will ensure more communities live on the perilous cusp of fire-prone ecosystems. Short-sighted changes in land-use will upset the millennia-old balance between fire and vegetation.
Potentially, this is a recipe for disaster, and warrants urgent action.
Conclusion number one might at first appear counterintuitive: Not all wildfires are automatically ‘bad’. Proportionate, naturally occurring wildfires actually comprise one of the necessary checks and balances maintaining the climate/vegetation relationship within a given ecosystem. How else can aged vegetation be razed to make way for healthy young stock? How else can plants that rely on fire for flowering, seed dispersal and germination – such as orchids, lilies, grasses and shrubs – trigger the next stage of their life cycles without nature’s own violent, bust measured, intervention? These long-established patterns of burning and recovery are known as an ecosystem’s ‘fire regime’. So far, so good.
Problems arise, however, in our modern day, post-industrial biosphere, as these delicate millennia-old regimes are transformed into something altogether more chaotic.
Today, wildfires burn more frequently and with greater intensity. In the USA, for instance, peak wildfire months since 2002 typically consume in excess of 1.7 million acres of land, compared to just over 0.8 million acres in decades past.
Third millennium wildfires exceed nature’s traditional constraints and controls, upsetting this refined ecosystem balance. And as we have seen, in their worst-case scenarios, they also overpower the capacity of humankind to suppress their fury.
What do these disruptions to fire regimes look like and how did they come about? Well, it depends where in the world you are.
- Mid-latitude deserts: The introduction of non-native combustible grasses increases the occurrence of fires and prevents the adequate regeneration of flora.
- Seasonally dry forests: Over-zealous fire-prevention leads to less frequent but much more ferocious ‘crown fires’, which spread uncontrollably through forest canopies.
- Boreal forests: Wildfires of unprecedented intensity release long-stored carbon from soil into the atmosphere. They also deter the planting of replacement trees, with adverse climate consequences.
- Tropical savannahs: Ceaseless grazing from intensified or industrialized farming techniques reduces the occurrence of bush fires, depleting the variety of species and leading to over-dense vegetation cover.
- Rainforests: The unholy trinity of deforestation, rising temperatures and increasing pastoral activity create the world’s most visible and shocking change. Frequent and powerful surface fires are now reported in rainforests whose high moisture content previously rendered them immune to natural breakouts.
In ecosystems across the world the same unsettling scenes play out: Unnatural fire regimes rupturing ancient symbiotic relationships, releasing carbon into the air, and threatening communities near and far.
Its toll on the environment, and on human health, is plain for all to see.
Wildfires a symptom of sickening world
We could, as UNEP notes, be witnessing the most vicious of circles: “While climate change is already influencing wildfires, wildland fires may likewise be influencing climate change”.
Thanks to wildfires the Amazon rainforest, conventionally regarded as a carbon trap, could soon become a carbon emitter. Fires are also partially responsible for the more rapid melting of Arctic permafrost across Siberia, unleashing trapped methane and driving sea levels ever upwards. And with rising temperature and more volatile weather, natural ignition events such as heatwaves and lightning strikes occur more readily.
The impacts on life as we know it are severe. Wildfires spew dangerous pollutants including black carbon particulates, spreading them into lungs thousands of miles from their source.
Atmospheric soot decreases the planet’s ability to reflect sunlight, causing heating. Sediment levels increase in rivers, potentially poisoning water sources and depleting protein-rich fish stocks. By razing the vegetation which binds the earth beneath our feet, wildfires also encourage soil erosion and may even become one trigger for events such as landslides.
Inevitably, it is the most vulnerable among us, the young, elderly and impoverished, who suffer most under wildfires’ pernicious onslaught.
Wildfires also decimate biodiversity. Research shows thousands of species are directly threatened by the impacts of widespread burnings, including 28% of all species in savannah regions and 26.3% of species in grassland areas.
Clearly, we cannot continue along our current path. Even within developed economies, often shielded from the worst of the world’s environmental decay, it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the rising peril posed by wildfires in our warming world. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that temperatures in Europe over the past three decades have increased at more than twice the global average – with more wildfires among the inevitable outcomes. It predicts that such asymmetrical temperature rises in Europe look likely to continue, due in part to Europe’s disproportionately high percentage of land mass, which warms faster than the sea.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take to mitigate the frequency and impact of global wildfires. A coordinated, long-term approach is the best remedy.
Turning down the heat
Wildfires are a force of nature too powerful to control entirely, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless to exert any influence. Our actions can help determine when and where they burn, and the degree of devastation they unleash.
Firstly, forewarned is forearmed.
The recent technology-driven evolution of meteorology, set to improve further with the expansion of artificial intelligence (AI), will allow scientists to predict so-called ‘fire weather’ (spells of dangerously hot, dry conditions) with ever greater accuracy. Smarter modelling and data collection from ground-based radars, lightning detectors and satellites, could likewise help hone wildfire prediction systems.
Consider systems such as the EU’s Copernicus observation program; the Latin-American Regional Network for Remote Sensing and Forest Fires; or Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (NISR) Queimadas program, together funding cutting edge research into heat monitoring and wildfire detection.
If stricken communities have sufficient warning of impending fires, they can take action to limit fire spread, to save homes, and to preserve lives. They can cut down fire breaks in forests, begin stockpiling water resources for combating infernos, and in worst case scenarios, launch evacuations to safer ground.
Prevention is invariably better than cure in wildfire regions close to population centers. Currently, many fires are accidentally ignited by faulty farming machinery, by the burning of timber residue, or by malfunctioning power lines. Better maintenance of equipment and more careful handling of flammable material can help reduce the number of inadvertent ignitions.
The tactical burning of aged, combustible flora during low-risk seasons can help deprive wildfires of vital fuel during breakouts.
In Brazil, rural and indigenous communities are being encouraged to deploy traditional fire management techniques to prevent turbulent wildfires. By limiting flammable vegetation stocks and by deploying periodic controlled burns, dry season wildfires now consume 57% less land where such methods have been trialed.
Inspired by this success, the Royal Commission charged with investigating Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfires has made similar recommendations based on indigenous management practices among Aboriginal communities.
Alleviating the impacts of global wildfires will require long-range planning – the kind of planning that spans not just countries but continents. It will require sharing firefighting resources, such as trained personnel and specially equipped aircraft, between northern and southern hemispheres. It will mean focusing on global rather than local benefits, particularly as fire seasons begin to overlap between different regions.
Time is of the essence. As with almost any climate-related issue, signs point to conditions worsening before they have any chance of improvement. Fire seasons have lengthened by approximately 27% globally since the 1980s, disproportionately weighted towards the Mediterranean, North American forest lands and the Amazon.
Looking ahead, research from the World Economic Forum (WEF) demonstrates that each additional degree of global warming will substantially increase the duration of ‘fire weather’ conditions across most regions on Earth. Anything above 2oC of warming, cautions the WEF, will result in fire seasons “virtually unrecognizable” from today.
Attention turns, therefore, to the search for some big-ticket panacea; a single strategy which can have the swiftest and most dramatic impact on wildfire reduction.
Step forward that universal villain: CO2.
Cutting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will help curtail global warming, shortening fire seasons and thereby reducing the proliferation of wildfires globally. Do we still have time to neutralize the worst impacts of climate change?
Which future will we choose?
Humans have raised CO2 levels in the atmosphere to 50% above pre-industrial times. As a result, the world has already warmed by 1.1°C over the past century. That is neither speculation nor projection. Rather, it is damage already done – a harbinger of greater perils around the corner unless we amend our collective attitude as Earth’s custodians.
The eyes of the world focused on Egypt in November 2022, for the latest UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), as world leaders convened to submit renewed national action plans to combat global heating. In advance of the gathering, invitees were warned that commitments made at last year’s COP26 were inadequate to limit global temperature rises to 1.5oC.
However, held against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine and pressures on energy supplies worldwide, the outcome of the conference was mixed, with many observers feeling that it did not make sufficient progress on the pledges from the previous meeting.,
COP27 did see the establishment of a pooled ‘loss and damage’ fund to help compensate developing nations for the looming specter of irreversible climate breakdown. But to some environmental campaigners, this sounded dangerously like an admission that the 1.5oC goal was being abandoned, prompting accusations that policymakers were continuing to favor short-term energy remedies over long-term green energy investments.
Attention now shifts to COP28 in the UAE, scheduled for November to December 2023, seen as a final opportunity to keep the last vestiges of the 1.5oC dream alive. Wildfires are one of the more graphic and vivid manifestations of what will happen if we fail.
The infernos we endure cannot be expected to show us mercy, any more than the environmental crisis can be expected to resolve itself.
That duty falls to us, humankind.
For the first time in history, we have the power to destroy our own ecosystem. But we also have the potential, with technology, innovation and, above all, commitment, to change course and avoid the climate collapse we appear to be speeding towards.
Few issues burn with greater urgency.
Cartoon image illustrated by Graeme MacKay