The world is currently aflame with several large wildfires burning through vast swathes of areas. These fires are burning in areas that often have never seen fires of such intensity and size. North-Western America, Sardinia, Sicily and the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Turkey, Finland, and Siberia are all currently witnessing massive wildfires.
What causes wildfires?
Wildfires are essentially caused when dried vegetation is set aflame, most of the time by lightning strikes. Other events may also cause wildfires that range from human-caused or natural.
Wildfires are often part of the natural ecological cycle in many areas of the world. Intense wildfires create complex early seral forest habitats that have higher species diversity than an unburned old forest.
Wildfires are a cause of concern when they happen with such a frequency that the ecological system is not able to recover. Similarly, wildfires in areas where wildfires are not common can cause widespread ecological changes. Wildfires near habited areas can also cause largescale damage to property, life and resources.
Studies have shown that the increasing frequency of wildfires has been linked to the effects of climate change. Heatwaves, droughts, climate variability such as El Niño, and regional weather patterns that have been affected due to rising global temperatures, have increased the risk of wildfires exponentially.
"Not only is the average wildfire season three and a half months longer than it was a few decades back, but the number of annual large fires in the West has tripled — burning twice as many acres,” reported the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy non-profit.
"According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change increases the likelihood of droughts, storms and other weather anomalies. Those events that were once every 100 years are suddenly happening once every 10 years. Based on the IPCC, we are moving towards an increasing frequency of fires, whether that’s forest fires or grassland fires – and many other dire consequences as well,” said Niklas Hagelberg Coordinator of UN Environment's subprogramme on Climate Change.
As global warming creates more regions that will be suffering from droughts and drier weather, more areas of the globe come under the risk of intense wildfires. The US Department of Agriculture estimated that an average annual 1 degree C temperature increase would increase area burned per year by as much as 600 percent in some types of forests.
"In the Siberian Arctic, we're concerned about the tundra ecosystem to the north of the forest, this would normally be too wet or frozen to burn," said Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics. "In the last two years we saw a lot of fires in this ecosystem, which suggests that things are changing there."
More fires would also mean more greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere, which in turn would lead to higher temperatures and subsequently, more wildfires.
"If they're burning, then it's releasing carbon," said Mark Parrington, senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. "It's removing a carbon storage system that's been there for thousands of years and so there's potentially a knock-on impact from that."
"Severe heat and drought fuel wildfires, conditions scientists have linked to climate change. If we don’t break the warming cycle, we expect more and worse wildfires in the years ahead,” EDF added.
(Edited by : Aditi Gautam)
First Published: IST