Climate forecasters warn of a ‘global wildfire crisis’

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A landmark United Nations report has concluded that the risk of devastating wildfires around the world will increase over the coming decades as climate change further intensifies what the report describes as a “global wildfire crisis”.

The scientific assessment is the first of the organization’s environmental authority to assess the risk of wildfires around the world. He was inspired by a series of deadly fires around the world in recent years, scorching the American West, large swaths of Australia and even the Arctic.

Images of those fires — cities glowing under orange skies, smoke billowing around tourist havens and heritage sites, woodland animals badly injured and killed — have become somber icons of this era of relationships. unstable between humanity and nature.

“Global warming is turning landscapes into powder kegs,” said the report, released Wednesday by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Carried out by more than 50 researchers from six continents, the report estimates that the global risk of highly devastating fires could increase by up to 57% by the end of the century, mainly due to climate change.

The risks will not be evenly distributed: some regions will likely experience more fire activity, while others will experience less.

This is a stark warning about the increase in heat and drought that human-caused global warming is bringing. Nations and localities need to better prepare for the dangers, the report’s authors said.

A plane spreads fire retardant near Wooroloo, Australia in February 2021. | DEPARTMENT OF FIRE AND EMERGENCY SERVICES/VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

“Governments are not paying enough attention to fires,” said Glynis Humphrey, a fire scientist at the University of Cape Town and author of the new report. More and more societies around the world are learning the value of prescribed burns and other methods to prevent wildfires from getting out of control, she said. Yet public spending in developed countries is still heavily skewed toward firefighting rather than forest management.

In some areas with a long history of bushfires, such as eastern Australia and the western United States and Canada, they have become more intense over the past decade and are ravaging larger areas, according to the report.

But uncontrolled burning is also starting to happen in places where it was not common before, such as Russia, northern India and Tibet. In parts of the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, fire activity has declined over the past two decades, in part because drought has killed more grass.

While climate change is bringing more record-breaking heat and drought that have contributed to recent bouts of severe fires, the overall effect on fire risk is complex and can vary from place to place.

The researchers determined that the extreme heat wave in the Pacific Northwest last year would almost certainly not have happened without the global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have also found the fingerprints of climate change on bushfires in Australia and extreme heat and scorching in Siberia.

But hot weather and low rainfall can also reduce the amount of vegetation available to fuel fires. In other places, the decrease in humidity can make vegetation more flammable, helping fires spread more easily.

After taking all these factors into account, the report still predicts a significant increase in the global risk of extraordinary wildfires, even if nations manage to limit emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Under a moderate scenario of global warming, the likelihood of extreme and catastrophic fires could increase by up to a third by 2050 and up to 52% by 2100, the report estimates. If emissions are not reduced and the planet warms further, the risk of wildfires could increase by up to 57% by the end of the century.

The increase in burning is expected to be particularly large in places like the Arctic, said Douglas I. Kelley, a researcher at Britain’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology who carried out the data analysis for the report.

Northern Russia and North America are already warming much faster than the rest of the globe. The intense Arctic fires of 2020 released more polluting gases into the atmosphere in June than in any other month in 18 years of data collection.

An area burned by a wildfire in the Alpine National Park in Australia in May 2020 |  MATTHEW ABBOTT / THE NEW YORK TIMES
An area burned by a wildfire in the Alpine National Park in Australia in May 2020 | MATTHEW ABBOTT / THE NEW YORK TIMES

In more temperate regions of the United States and Asia, Kelley said, wildfires could increase as emissions increase because the greater amount of carbon dioxide in the air helps plants grow, resulting in more vegetation to feed the fires.

The prolonged drought in the American West – the region’s worst, scientists say, in at least 1,200 years – helped spark wildfires earlier in the year. Forecasters expect the heat and dryness to continue this spring and beyond.

The UN report urges governments to become more proactive about fire risks. Of every dollar spent in the United States to manage wildfires, nearly 60 cents are spent on immediate firefighting interventions, according to a study cited in the report. Much less is spent on reducing fire risk in advance and helping communities recover in ways that make them more resilient.

Peter Moore, fire management consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and author of the report, said more countries could learn from Portugal, which has drawn up an ambitious national fire plan after two fires killed more than 100 people in 2017. Decades of economic development had caused a shrinking farmland there and an expansion of poorly managed forests, making the landscape highly combustible.

“So when the bad weather happened, and then a series of ignitions happened, they had a series of dramatic, catastrophic fires,” Moore said. In eastern Australia, western North America, Chile and elsewhere, he said, “those same conditions are starting to happen.”

Not all human developments add to the risk of fire. In the tropical grasslands of Africa, population density has increased and farmers have converted more of the area to cropland and pasture. This has fragmented the savannahs, making it harder for wildfires to spread. The researchers used satellite data to estimate that, despite global warming, steep decreases in Africa helped reduce the total amount of land burned worldwide by a quarter between 1998 and 2015.

Many fires in Africa are set deliberately to clear vegetation and avoid wildfires that would be more severe and less controllable, said Humphrey of the University of Cape Town. In many places, communities have managed the land this way for centuries, and the UN report calls for better integration of this traditional knowledge into fire policies.

Humphrey said more governments need to discover or rediscover what fire really is: “something really critical to our planet, but which also needs to be managed.”

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