It’s no secret that Australia has been enduring the worst wildfires since September last year. The wildfires have already burned at least 27 million acres, an area larger than Portugal and more than 14 times greater than the area that burned in California in 2018. It destroyed more than 2,500 homes, killing at least 29 people. But, the most affected is the wildlife. Reports showed that an estimated 1.25 billion animals have been lost due to the fires. Unfortunately, Australia’s fire season will only get longer and more dangerous.
While wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem in Australia because many living organisms depend on them to germinate, cycle nutrients and clear decay, the current trend with wildfires is extremely destructive. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s 2018 State of the Climate report revealed that the continent’s climate has warmed by over 1 degree Celsius since 1910, which led to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events.
“There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia,” the report added.
Wildfires are also evident in the US. According to the Insurance Information Institute, a US industry association which exists "to improve public understanding of insurance – what it does and how it works,” the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported 4.6 million acres were burned in the 2019 period, which is lower compared to last year’s 8.5 million acres. Previous reports discovered that an average of 72,400 wildfires burned an average of 7 million acres every year since 2000.
Another report from the Congressional Research Service showed that there were an average of 67,000 wildfires and an average of 7 million acres burned annually over the past 10 years. About 58,083 wildfires burned 8.8 million acres nationwide last 2018, the sixth-largest figure on record in terms of acreage burned. The most severe fire season happened in 2015 when 10.1 million acres burned. As of October 3, 2019, 40,581 wildfires have burned 4.4 million acres.
For the past two decades, the destruction caused by wildfires in the US has significantly increased. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, the risk of wildfires in the country is expected to rise as the US gets hotter and drier due to climate change. Some wildfires indeed occur on their own in nature but this only happens 10% to 15% of the time. The other 85% and 90% are caused by humans, which includes unattended camp and debris fires, discarded cigarettes, and arson.
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
If there’s one thing that all of us can agree on about wildfires, it's that climate change is making these fires even worse. It has been endangering more and more lives and destroying more ecosystems. Climate scientists have correlated the growing incidence and intensity of wildfires with rising global temperatures. Previous studies have also shown a strong link between climate change and wildfires. Unfortunately, not much has done since then. These wildfires are getting more intense and they seem unstoppable.
In a recent study, scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), Met Office Hadley Centre, University of Exeter, and Imperial College London once again showed how human-induced climate change promotes the conditions on which wildfires depend. The team conducted Rapid Response Review of 57 peer-reviewed papers published since the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 using the new ScienceBrief.org online platform, set up by UEA and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. The online platform was intended to analyze peer-reviewed publications rapidly and transparently so scientists can share scientific insights with the world.
Dr. Matthew Jones, the Senior Research Associate at UEA's Tyndall Centre and lead author of the review, stated that all papers the researchers reviewed showed how human-induced warming led to a global increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather, which increases the risks of wildfires.
"This has been seen in many regions, including the western US and Canada, southern Europe, Scandinavia, and Amazonia. Human-induced warming is also increasing fire risks in other regions, including Siberia and Australia. However, there is also evidence that humans have significant potential to control how this fire risk translates into fire activity, in particular through land management decisions and ignition sources,” Dr. Jones said.
According to Science Daily, an American website that aggregates press releases and publishes lightly edited press releases about science, the findings emphasized that rising global temperatures, associated droughts in some regions, and more frequent heatwaves stimulate hot and dry conditions. This increases the likelihood of wildfires. Other factors include periods with a high fire risk due to a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall, and often high winds.
The Cycle of Fire
Aside from climate change, deforestation plays a huge role in the worsening of wildfires. An unfortunate example of this is Brazil’s Amazon. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that there has been a total of 72,843 fires last 2019, an 80% increase from 2018. Of these numbers, 9,000 have been spotted in just a week, and deforestation is to blame.
According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has been rising steadily for the past few years. It increased even more when Jair Bolsonaro became president in January. A 2019 study showed that deforestation affects a process known as evapotranspiration. Intact forests transfer more water to the atmosphere than areas that have been deforested. The researchers found out that less evapotranspiration reduces the cooling capacity of forests, causing local temperatures to rise.
These studies proved that deforestation, climate change, and the risk of wildfires are all directly linked. "We are dealing with a feedback effect here. More deforestation means an increase in climate change, which increases the chances of the vegetation drying out, which in turn increases the risk of fire and so on,” Susanne Winter, the Forest Program Manager at WWF Germany, said.
If our governments don’t address these concerns all at once, there would be little to no change. It’s important that they pay attention to these issues to save our planet.