Friday, August 23, 2019

Increasing Wildfires are the New Abnormal

It is with good reason that the fires in the Amazon are capturing headlines, but wildfires have burned all around the globe this year. What makes these events unique is their frequency, size and duration. Wildfire seasons are starting earlier and ending later.

European heat waves ignited large wildfires in the winter and spring of 2019. In February hot temperatures sparked wildfires across western Europe and in April there were wildfires in Scotland, Norway and Sweden According to the Emergency Management Service of the EU agency Copernicus in the first three months of 2019, there were unprecedented number of wildfires in Europe that burned 74,482 hectares. France was among the worst hit accounting for more than one third of the 480 fires in the first quarter of 2019.

This summer extreme heat caused summer wildfires in Spain which consumed tens of thousands of acres. Catalonia had its worst wildfires in decades and so have Gran Canaria and southern Spain. Germany, Greece, and Turkey have also been among the European countries that have suffered from heat and wildfires.It is not only Europe, Asia and Latin America are also experiencing wildfires. Even Greenland has been hit by a spate of wildfires.

In the US there have been a number of wildfires including one in central Arizona that burned thousands of acres. Another in June burned more than 15,000 acres in the Florida Everglades. However, hot temperatures in Alaska are driving the most troubling wildfire spikes. Siberia is on track to set a new record for burn area in Russia this year.

Arctic warming is making wildfires larger and more common. Early in July there were more than 100 wildfires burning across the Arctic Circle. Some of these fires were more than 100,000 hectares making them among the biggest fires in 2019. The number of Arctic fires in the first half of 2019 was extraordinary. In Alaska alone almost 400 wildfires ravaged more than 600,000 acres.

While wildfires are a natural phenomenon, the sheer size and number this year is a concerning. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the 2019 Arctic fires eclipse the cumulative total of all GHG emissions from Arctic fires in the previous 8 years. It is estimated that as of early July Arctic wildfires had already emitted 50 megatons of carbon dioxide. Arctic wildfires are part of a feedback loop in which peat releases carbon exacerbating global warming and causing more fires.

Last year wildfires in California in both August and November prompting then-Governor Jerry Brown to describe the situation as "the new normal," and subsequently "the new abnormal." The average wildfire season in the US is now 78 days longer than it was in 1970.

A June study showed that climate change is responsible for last year's heat and wildfires in the northern hemisphere. The IPCC’s special report on climate change and land also made the connection between the climate crisis and wildfires. This is consistent with the predictions of climate scientists who have warned of increasingly frequent and severe heat waves.

The thread that weaves all these wildfires together is global warming and the catalyst is heat, the harbinger of fire.

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