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Climate change: New UN study finds that wildfires are about to increase!6 min read

February 28, 2022 5 min read


Climate change: New UN study finds that wildfires are about to increase!6 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Things are about to get more fiery and hot, hot , hot in the coming years, according to a recent study.

Wildfires are predicted to worsen in the coming years and decades, warns the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its annual Frontiers report released on February 17, 2022.

A wildfire in the US state of California in 2021. Photo: Sky News

A wildfire, forest fire, bushfire, wildland fire or rural fire is an unplanned, unwanted, uncontrolled fire in an area of combustible vegetation starting in rural areas and urban areas. 

Wildfires are a natural phenomenon, but are becoming more dangerous and affecting larger areas. Why is this happening? Well, the UN report has attributed this to climate change and human activities.

“The trends towards more dangerous fire-weather conditions are likely to increase due to rising concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases and the attendant escalation of wildfire risk factors,” Inger Andersen, executive director, UNEP, said.

Such extreme events are disastrous to human health and the environment, the report warned.

The document has been released 10 days ahead of the UN Environment Assembly.

The UN Environment Assembly brings together governments, businesses, civil society and other stakeholders to agree on policies to address the world’s most pressing environment issues.

There has been a rapid expansion of cities towards forest areas in many regions in recent decades. These areas, where wild land and urban land meet, have been found to be where wildfire risks are most pronounced, the report said.

Where are the most wildfires happening?

RankNameCountryArea burned (Km2)Deaths
12019-2020 Australian bushfire seasonAustralia240,00034+
22021 Russia wildfiresRussia200,0000
32019 Siberia wildfiresRussia43,0000
42014 Northwest Territories firesCanada34,0000
52009 black Saturday bushfiresAustralia21,000173
62020 California wildfiresUnited States18,00031
72010 Bolivia forest firesBolivia15,0000
82011–2012 Australian bushfire seasonAustralia14,0000
92006-2007 Australian bushfire seasonAustralia13,0005
102017 British Columbia wildfiresCanada12,0000
112015 Russian wildfiresRussia11,00033
122012–2013 Australian bushfire seasonAustralia9,0004
132019 Amazon rainforest wildfiresBrazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru9,0002

The chart above shows us where the largest and most destructive wildfires have happened in the 21st century.

The study, however, cites the example of California, USA, to illustrate just how bad wildfires have gotten in the last few years.

The burned area and average size of wildfires in California have increased in the last few decades. Thirteen of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires have occurred in the past five years. They collectively destroyed 40,000 homes, businesses and pieces of infrastructure, according to NASA.

Wildfires rarely spread to humid tropical forests in the past, but things are changing now, and these forests are also more vulnerable due to deforestation and forest fragmentation.

“Extreme weather events such as hotter temperatures and more droughts lead to longer fire seasons and increase the likelihood of fire weather condition,” the Frontiers report said.

The African savannah is home to several grazing animals such as zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, etc. Photo: Pinterest

Wildfires have also become more common in the Savannah ecosystem. Savannah, or the mixed woodland-grassland ecosystem, accounted for 77% of the total 13 million individual fires (lasting for 4-5 days) which occurred globally between 2003 and 2016.  This has affected over one-fourth of species in the Savannah ecosystem.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

Some of the most well-known savannahs include the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania, the vast Acacia Plains of East Africa, the savannahs of Venezuela, and the Australian Savannah. The Serengeti Plains are probably one of the most famous savannahs in the world.

Between 2002 and 2016, an average of about 423 million hectares or 4.23 million square km of the earth’s land surface was burnt each year. This is equivalent to an area around size of the entire European Union!

In fact, 67% of the annual global area burned by all types of fires, including wildfires, was on the African continent, according to estimates in the UNEP report.

In 2021 too, Africa was the most affected region due to wildfires, the UNEP report said, citing NASA

More fires, more pollution

With rising forest fires, the world is very likely to see more frequent incidences of lightning

Lightning strikes are expected to increase in frequency in some parts of the world as the climate changes. Lightning ignition is the predominant driver of massive wildfires in the boreal forests of North America and northern Siberia, the report pointed out.

Fire-induced thunderstorms are a new danger posed by rising wildfires. In recent decades, such thunderstorms have been reported very frequently in Australia, Europe and North America

These thunderstorms contribute to more dangerous conditions for fires on the ground. With changing climate, the frequency of lightning strikes is projected to increase, according to the UNEP. Lightning from these storms will also lead to additional blazes in far-away locations.

Wildfires are also responsible for air pollution. There is a link between impact of wildfire-related pollution and human deaths, according to research.

Smoke fills the skies as a neighbor helps a family remove animals from their home while the El Dorado fire burns close to a house on Kevari Court in gusty winds and low visibility in Yucaipa on Sunday, September 6, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

How do we tackle this?

Wildfire prevention, response and management calls for improved planning and policies coupled with practices. It is important to enhance fire-fighting capabilities and strengthen community resilience-building programmes, the report said.

A preventive approach, rather than reactive approach, will help adapt to the wildfires, it said. This means that precautions should be taken to prevent these fires early on, rather than waiting for the disaster to happen and then fighting it in the best way possible.

The report also recommended the following to improve monitoring and management of wildfires:

  • Appreciating and adopting indigenous fire management techniques
  • Focus on long-range weather forecasting
  • Focus on remote-sensing capabilities such as satellites, ground-based radar, lightning detection as well as data handling

Owliver’s Obscure Observations

Wildfires are one of three most important environmental issues to have emerged due to climate change. The other two are noise pollution and shift in biological life cycles of plants and animals.

Sources: CNN, Down to Earth

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