Climate change could increase wildfire risk by 50% by century’s end

A landmark United Nations report has concluded that the risk of devastating wildfires worldwide will increase in the coming decades as climate change intensifies what the report describes as ” global bushfire crisis”.

The scientific assessment is the organization’s first ever assessment of wildfire hazards worldwide. It was inspired by a string of deadly fires across the globe in recent years that burned the American West, swathes of Australia and even North Pole.

Images from those fires – cities glowing under orange skysmoke billowing around tourist paradise and heritage sites, severely injured and killed wild animals – have become this day’s grim symbol of the tumultuous relationship between humanity and nature.

The report released by the United Nations Environment Program on Wednesday said: “Planetary warming is turning landscapes into trash cans.”

The report, carried out by more than 50 researchers from six continents, estimates that the risk of devastating fires worldwide could increase by as much as 57% by the end of this century, mainly is due to climate change. Risks will not be evenly distributed: Some areas are more likely to experience fires, while others may experience less.

It is a stark warning of the increase in temperature and dryness that human-caused global warming is causing. Countries and localities need to be better prepared for hazards, the report’s authors said.

“There is not enough concern about fires from governments,” said Glynis Humphrey, a fire expert at the University of Cape Town and author of the new report. Many societies around the world are learning the value of prescribed burns and other methods to prevent wildfires from growing out of control, she said. However, public spending in developed countries is still heavily skewed towards fire fighting rather than forest management.

The report found that in some areas with a long history of brush fires, such as eastern Australia and the western United States and Canada, they have become more intense over the past decade and are ravaging areas. larger area. But uncontrolled burning is also starting to occur in places where it was previously uncommon, such as Russia, northern India and Tibet. In contrast, in the savannah areas of sub-Saharan Africa, firefighting activity has declined over the past two decades, partly because drought has killed more grass.

While climate change is adding to the record-breaking warmth and dryness that have contributed to recent severe wildfires, the overall effect on fire risk is complex and can vary from country to country. by place.

Researchers have identified that the extreme heatwave in the Pacific Northwest last year would almost certainly not have happened without the warming of the planet from greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have also found traces of climate change on ignition in Australia and extremely hot and scorching in Siberia.

But hot weather and weak rainfall can also reduce the amount of vegetation available to feed the fires. Elsewhere, reduced humidity can make vegetation more combustible, making it easier for fires to spread.

After taking all of these factors into account, the report still forecasts a significant increase in the risk of unusual wildfires globally, even as countries manage to limit emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The report estimates that in a moderate scenario for global warming, the likelihood of severe, catastrophic fires could increase by as much as a third by 2050 and up to 52% by 2100. If emissions are not curbed and the planet warms more, the risk of wildfires could increase by as much as 57% by the end of this century.

Douglas I. Kelley, a researcher at the UK’s Center for Ecology & Hydrology, who carried out the data analysis for the report, said the increase in burning is forecast to be particularly large in places that include including the North Pole. The northern regions of Russia and North America are warming much faster than the rest of the globe. The Wildfires in the Arctic in 2020 released more pollutants into the atmosphere in June than in any other month in the 18 years of data collection.

Dr Kelley said in more temperate parts of the US and Asia, wildfires could increase as emissions increase because higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air help plants grow, leading to more vegetation. more plants to burn.

Prolonged drought in the US West – the worst in the region, scientists say, at least 1,200 years – helped ignite the forest fires the begin of the year. Forecasters are expecting The warmth and dryness continues this spring and beyond.

The United Nations report calls on governments to be more proactive about fire hazards. Of every U.S. dollar spent managing wildfires, nearly 60 cents goes toward immediate fire responses, according to research cited in the report. Spend a lot less on pre-fire risk reduction and help communities recover in ways that can make them more resilient.

Peter Moore, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization fire management consultant and author of the report, says many countries can learn from Portugal, which has drawn up a plan ambitious national fire brigade after two fires that killed more than 100 people over decades economic development has reduced arable land and expanded poorly managed forests, making the landscape very flammable.

“So when the weather turned erratic, and then a series of fires hit, they had a series of dramatic and catastrophic fire events,” says Dr. In eastern Australia, western North America, Chile and elsewhere, “similar conditions are starting to happen,” he said.

Not all human development adds to the risk of fire. In the tropical grasslands of Africa, population densities have increased, and farmers have converted more acreage into cropland and pasture. That has divided the savannas, making it harder for wildfires to spread. The researchers used satellite data to estimate that, despite global warming, the large decline in Africa helped reduce the total amount of land burned worldwide by a quarter between 1998 and 2015.

Dr Humphrey of the University of Cape Town said many fires in Africa are deliberately set on fire to clear vegetation and prevent more severe and more difficult-to-control bushfires. Communities in many places have managed land this way for centuries, and the United Nations report calls for such traditional knowledge to be better integrated into fire policies.

Dr Humphrey said more governments are needed to discover or rediscover what the flame really is: “something that’s really important to our planet, but it also needs to be managed.” Climate change could increase wildfire risk by 50% by century’s end

Fry Electronics Team

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