World on fire

How climate change is fuelling forest fires around the globe

The year 2020 will be remembered not just for the Corona pandemic but also for the terrifying wildfires burning across the earth. Wildfires in the US are currently burning across twelve western states, most notably in California, while the 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia was so bad it’s colloquially become known as ‘Black Summer’. Unprecedented fires across the planet have hit multiple continents during this year’s season, with fires ripping through parts of India, Russia, Australia, the US, Argentina, Brazil, and Ukraine.

One quick look at the stats should be enough for anyone to see that the world has a growing problem with wildfires. At the time of writing, 41,051 wildfires have burned across the globe during 2020, up from 35,386 wildfires during the same period in 2019. 4.7 million acres have burned during this period in 2020 compared to 4.2 million acres in 2019. Graphs reflecting the number of acres burned in wildfires each year from 1980 to the present show a steady increase over the past three decades.

Wildfires, when uncontrolled, kill and displace wildlife, alter water cycles and soil fertility, and pollute the environment. In recent images taken in San Francisco this month, wildfire smoke is seen to turn the whole sky orange. Smoke from wildfires contains thousands of compounds including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hydrocarbons. Many of the particles found in wildfire smoke are too small for the human body to filter naturally, which makes them especially bad for lung health. The wildfires currently burning in California have already killed 35 people this month.

It’s clear that something’s got to change. But what?

If you listen to Donald Trump, the latest batch of wildfires to hit California, Australia, and elsewhere in 2020 are all caused by poor forest management. ‘When trees fall down after a short period of time, they become very dry – really like a matchstick … and they can explode,’ Trump said at a briefing in Northern California earlier this month. Scientists, on the other hand, seem to disagree – not that Trump cares. When Trump predicted a cooling of the Earth, Wade Crowfoot, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources, said, ‘I wish science agreed with you.’ Trump’s response? ‘I don’t think science knows.’

But if we don’t listen to scientists, who do we listen to? How about the firefighters who are seeing the real effects of climate change year on year, with their own eyes? Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles, stated: ‘Talk to a firefighter if you think that climate change isn’t real,’ and added, ‘It seems like this administration are the last vestiges of the Flat Earth Society of this generation.’

Trump might have a good brain for business, but he’s no climate expert. Climate scientists have been warning us of the effects of climate change for years, and we are now starting to see tangible effects in wildfires. One study showed that climate change made the conditions for Australia’s shocking 2019-2020 bushfire season 30% more likely. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, told Buzzfeed News ‘This is very much a way station on the path to a new future. We have not reached the peak. In fact, no one knows where the peak is.’

If that’s not enough, let’s just consider Trump’s argument for a second. First of all, it’s a little suspect that wildfires are breaking out with increasing volatility in multiple nations and continents around the world. Why would so many nations let their forest management standards slip in unison?

But, secondly, when Trump says ‘forest management’, he’s likely talking about controlled burning, a key part of forest management which involves deliberately burning off patches of forest to contain and prevent future wildfires. Part of the difficulty of conducting safe controlled burns in recent years is actually due to climate change: controlled burns have to occur during particular conditions when vegetation is dry enough to burn but damp enough not to get out of hand. Climate change means that California’s fire season has grown by around 75 days in the past few decades, which means forestry management teams have a much smaller window today to conduct controlled burns than they did 30 years ago.

So, either way you cut it, we’re back to climate change. But how is climate change causing an increased incidence of wildfires? There are two primary triggers: drought conditions and record high temperatures. While some areas of the globe are wetter due to climate change, others are experiencing more drought. In fact, the number of ‘very dry areas’ of the world has literally doubled since the 1970s.

Drought means that the dry season lasts longer and vegetation is dry enough to burn up and spread fast during more months of the year. This increase in drought is caused by shortfalls in precipitation and early snow melt in the spring. Higher average temperatures also feed into the problem by increasing evaporation and further drying out forests and land.

Record high temperatures reported around the world require even less explanation. Scientists have long been reporting this ‘warming’ of the Earth, caused primarily by greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning. The global average surface temperature of the Earth rose from 0.6 to 0.9 degrees Celsius between 1906 and 2005, and over the past 50 years the rate of temperature increase has almost doubled. There is no doubt that temperatures will rise further throughout the 21st century and beyond – unless big changes are made.

While many governments around the world are doing what they can to combat climate change, it’s not yet enough. The anti-environmental lobby will stop at nothing to push their own agenda and ignore the damage we are still doing to the plant on a daily basis. The 2020 wildfire season is, to use a fitting phrase, just the tip of the iceberg. When scientists, firefighters, and politicians from all sides of the political spectrum unite in agreement against a common enemy, it’s time to stop and listen.

 

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