Thursday, August 16, 2018

Heat Connects Wildfires to Climate Change

A global heat wave is fueling wildfires from South America to the Arctic Circle.  Research links climate change to heatwaves and drought both of which are important catalysts for wildfires.

As reported by the BBC a recent study suggests that climate change has made heat waves more than twice as likely in Europe. The research concludes that the European heatwave of 2003 was 500% more likely due to climate change and the so-called "Lucifer" heatwave in Eastern Europe was made 10 times more likely by climate change. Studies show how heat and drought make vegetation and trees more combustible. We are even able to link some fires -- like the Canadian wildfires of 2016 -- directly to climate change.

The summer of 2018 is on track to be one of the hottest on record and this has spawned an anomalous number of wildfires. July was the hottest months in one of the hottest years ever recorded. Early in July it was becoming apparent that this was going to be a devastating year for wildfires.

In the first week of July the combination of record breaking heat and drought contributed to more than 30 large fires in 12 western US states. At the end of July there were more than 50 fires burning in 14 western states.  By the end of the month there were more than 140 wildfires burning across the US covering over a million acres. As of August 13 at least 100 wildfires have burnt a million and half acres in the western US alone. As in previous years California is the worst hit state. There are currently more than a dozen active wildfires in the state.

Heat and drought conditions have also created ideal wildfire conditions in Europe. The heat has contributed to a 43 percent increase in fires in Europe compared to the average.

In Greece the situation was perilous. This is the hottest year in recorded Greek history and it has sparked devastating wildfires that  have destroyed towns and caused people to flea into the sea to escape the infernos. At least 91 people have died as a consequence of the Greek wildfires. Last year wildfires killed more than 100 people in Portugal.  This year Portugal is even hotter and wildfires are thought to have killed at least 43 people so far.

Increasing levels of heat are making forests more prone to fires and lengthening the fire season. Wildfire season in the American west is now nearly four months longer than it was just 40 years ago, and the average wildfire is burning six times more forest area than it did in the 1970s.

Wildfires have destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses. The cost of these losses as well as the cost of fighting these fires amounts to tens of billions of dollars. In addition to destroying land and property the smoke and ash kill people and compromise health adding to the financial burden of wildfires. As reported by Fortune, the cost of the 2017 fires in northern California may end up exceeding $2.5 billion in insurance claims alone.

There was a time when we would be careful not to directly link extreme weather events to climate change. However, advances in attribution science are making it possible for us to say that anthropogenic climate change id playing a role. Longer summers, more intense drought, and higher temperatures are all linked to greater fire risk.

A 2016 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) links climate change to the increase in wildfires over recent decades. The study from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. concluded that over the last 30 years climate change has doubled the area affected by forest fires in the western U.S. They found that 55 percent of the increase in fuel aridity expected to lead to fires could be attributed to human-influenced climate change. Since 1970 there has bee a 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit temperature increase in the western US and this drives fire by drying out the land. Warmer air sucks the moisture out of plants, trees, dead vegetation, and soil.

Heat dries out vegetation and this provides fuel for the fires. This heat also contributes to the proliferation of certain insects that kill trees and add even more fodder to the flames. Wildfires are on the increase for a number of reasons but climate change is surely one of them.

The July fires mark the beginning of a fire season that is expected to peak in August and not relent until October. 

Ongoing heat, drought and the growing prospect of an El Niño does not bode well.  Mark Finney, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service warned that the worst fires are yet to come.

Evidence Linking Wildfires and Climate Change
California is Burning Again
California Fires are Part of a Global Phenomenon
Climate Change Fueling Wildfires in North America and Russia
Video - The Relationship Between Climate Change & Wildfires
Climate Change Fueling Forest Fires in the North American West
Trump's Climate Denial Makes Storms and Wildfires Worse
The Warming Temperature Trend Continues Despite Trump
Warming Temperatures are an Urgent Warning
Decades of Hot Data: The Harbingers of an Impending Climate Catastrophe

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