Is Global Warming to Blame for all of this Wildfire?
We know the last few years have been quite a struggle. It’s been a rough time. So you are partially forgiven for not noticing that the world is quite literally on fire. A rash of massive blazes is blighting the USA, Australia, Canada, Russia, South America, and parts of Europe. We are aware that wildfire events are an interwoven and essential part of many global ecologies. However, factors like climate change, overpopulation and human encroachment onto fire-prone natural spaces are responsible for these increasingly dangerous natural events.
Global warming is possibly the greatest hurdle the modern world must contend with. As a species, we humans have become masters at adapting to our environment and overcoming natural obstacles blocking pathways to our development. Perhaps that is why we have approached the topic of global warming with a general sense of fatigue and finger-pointing toward fossil fuel reliant developing nations for the last few decades. Perhaps we should have learned by now that Mother Nature has quite a vicious sting in her tail. Perhaps we should have listened more closely to the repeated warnings over the past 20 years that climate change would increase the risk of damaging fires. To the wider scientific community’s great relief and despair, we regular folk are really starting to wake up and feel the burn of climate change – especially when it is happening on our doorsteps.
While maintaining a frozen-stiff upper lip through a British winter or shivering and snowed under in New York, you may be surprised to hear NASA reporting sixteen of the 17 warmest years in the 136-year record all having occurred since 2001. These statistics and numbers are easy enough to comprehend but quite hard to visualise on a global scale, take a look here at this interactive climate time machine to put it all in perspective. The scary red, record-breaking temperature spikes reported over the last three years are likely to have fanned the flames destroying ecosystems and human communities on almost every continent. Sadly, these new climate conditions are predicted to be the norm by 2050.
This year alone has been something of a hellish foreshadowing of what is to come if we don’t act fast. Argentinian wildfires had scorched a staggering 2.47 million acres of dry, pampas grassland by January 2017. At the same time, adjacent Peru succumbed to dry, hot desert winds and lost an entire town as well as 11 of its inhabitants to fire. In February, extreme fire conditions developed in the region around Sydney, Australia where 100 fires were eventually contained.
April and May brought fire conditions to Florida’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where flames raged across 152,000 acres. Portugal suffered the deadliest fires in the country’s history after a record-breaking heatwave in June 2017, in which 65 people died and 110,000 acres were destroyed. Merely a month later, in the midst of a heatwave coined “Lucifer”, Southern Europe battled hundreds of fires in Italy, France and the Balkans. The same month also brought massive fires to western Canada that set records for the largest total area burned in a single season in British Columbia.
Wildfire & Air Quality
As of December 2017 in the USA around 58,000 wildfires have burned more than 9.2 million acres, making the air in many towns and cities too dangerous to breathe. In the States, air quality is considered “very unhealthy” when the index reaches 201. At one point, the air quality index in parts of Napa reached 486. California as a whole has seen more than 1 million acres and 10,000 structures go up in smoke and tragically at least 42 people have lost their lives as a direct result of the fire. Charred lands from wildfires that have destroyed vegetation have subsequently triggered the recent devastating mudslides in Santa Barbara county where a further 20 people were killed and 65 homes destroyed. While no price can be put on the loss of life and precious possessions, the damage is estimated to run into tens of billions of dollars.
If this information alone isn’t enough blow the smoke out of our eyes, consider this person of the Earth: earlier this summer Greenland was ablaze. 80% of Greenland happens to be covered in ice most of the year, so you’re not at all wrong in thinking this all sounds very peculiar.
Lightning strikes typically cause smaller fires on Greenland’s grassy, carbon-rich peatlands which have been left increasingly parched by the melting of permafrost in recent years.
On all that fresh kindling, this monstrously huge fire raged for two full weeks and as a result, large soot deposits are thought to have darkened the regions ice sheets. Since dark surfaces are worse at reflecting light, scientists are worried that the remaining ice will melt more rapidly and expose the environment to even greater fire risks in the future.
While new research shows how reducing carbon emissions can prevent billions of people from being exposed to unheard of changes in climate in the coming decades, it is clear that significant damage has already been done. Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, fire conditions will become even more persistent in areas already at risk and will spread to new regions as warming drives vegetation patterns and land-use changes.
So what can we do, we lonely individuals in the face of such a looming catastrophe?
It is not going to be easy or necessarily cheap but we can each do our bit by minimizing our carbon footprints:
- When that old gas guzzler of yours finally croaks, replace it with a hybrid or eco-efficient model. Alternatively, don’t replace it at all and rely on public transport to ferry you about.
- Check to see if your government funds the installation of solar panels on your home
- Support governments that are ready and willing to fund climate change initiatives
- Buy locally-sourced fruits and food products
- Support business which does their best to minimize harmful emissions
- Grow native plants in your gardens to boost biodiversity and natural habitats
- Check you’re not about to purchase any property in a fire risk area
- If you’re cold at home, put on a jumper before you turn up the heating
- Invest in climate-friendly technology like solar panels and energy-efficient appliances
- If you live in a community at risk from fire, petition your local governments to engage in large-scale prescribed burning programs that can prevent disaster fires
If you don’t yet have a New Year resolution for 2018, make it something to protect this planet we call home.