Tag Archives: Wildfires

Global warming could fuel extreme wildfires, making them 30% more common by 2050

If you feel like you are seeing more news of wildfires around the world, you’re not wrong. From the Amazon basin to Australia, the issue is getting more severe, affecting people’s livelihoods and biodiversity. Now, a new report by the UN is warning this could just be the start, anticipating extreme wildfire events will increase by 14% by 2030 and 30% by 2050.

Image credit: Flickr / Kevin Spencer.

Scientists from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) said it’s time for everyone to “learn to live with fire” and adapt to the growing frequency and severity of wildfires, which will challenge lives and economies around the world. Even if we reduce greenhouse emissions much faster, the near-term consequences are still locked in.

The report finds an elevated risk for regions previously unaffected by wildfires, such as the Arctic. This is in line with previous studies that have warned we are entering into the worst wildfire period in recorded history. Last year, a study found that the world’s eight most severe wildfires on record happened in the last decade.

“Uncontrollable and devastating wildfires are becoming an expected part of the seasonal calendars in many parts of the world,” Andrew Sullivan, an Australian researcher and the editor of the report, said in a press conference. “Where wildfires have historically occurred, they may increase; however, where wildfires have not historically occurred, they may become more common.”

Growing wildfires

Fires have always had a vital ecological purpose on Earth, important for many ecosystems as they restore the soil’s nutrients, help germinate plants, and remove decaying matter. Without some wildfires, overgrown foliage such as grasses can dominate the landscape and lead to worse fires, especially during heat waves and severe droughts.

That’s why burning parts on land deliberately has prevented more destructive fires. Indigenous communities have been doing this for thousands of years. But as humans have warmed the planet, neglected forest management and developed more land, wildfires have become more destructive and deadly, according to the new UN report.

Wildfires are made worse by climate change through low humidity, strong winds and increased drought. At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, which target carbon-rich ecosystems such as rainforests and peatlands. This transforms the landscapes into tinderboxes, making it more difficult to stop the rising temperatures.

While it’s a global phenomenon, the world’s poorest nations are especially affected by wildfires, the UN said. People’s health is directly affected by inhaling smoke, with increased health effects on the most vulnerable. The economic costs of rebuilding wildfire-affected areas can sometimes go beyond the means of low-income countries.

Wildfires also target wildlife and its natural habitat, pushing some species closer to extinction. A recent example is the Australian bushfires from 2019 and 2020. A report by WWF found that almost three billion animals, including mammals, reptiles, birds, and frogs, were killed or displaced by the fires, much higher than an earlier estimate.

Compiled by 50 researchers, the report calls for governments to re-think the way they address wildfires, allocating more funding for prevention rather than using most of the resources for direct responses. Now less than 1% of the funding is assigned to prevention. Data and science-based monitoring should be used much more extensively.

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported”, Inger Andersen, UNEP head, said in a statement. “We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires.”

Grasslands could overtake forests as the most reliable carbon sink ecosystems

In the face of unstable climate and weather patterns, grasslands may be more reliable carbon sinks than forests, a new paper suggests.

Sunset.

Image credits Rüştü Bozkuş.

Forests are key carbon sinks for our planet. All plants capture carbon atoms from CO2 gas as they grow, using them to weave together new tissues. Trees, being some of the largest plants out there, are particularly effective. Their sheer size stands as a testament to this ability — each and every square centimeter of that plant is build using carbon locked away from the atmosphere.

In recognition of this fact, forests are often considered net carbon sinks in cap-and-trade/emission trading type schemes. In this case, particularly, they’ve been included in California’s cap and trade system since the state’s Air Resources Board (ARB) adopted the U.S. Forests Compliance Offset Protocol in November 2014.

So why then don’t we just plaster the Earth in trees and spew CO2 without a care in the world? Well, first off, it wouldn’t work — trees alone can’t save us from climate change, studies have shown. Another issue is that our photosynthesizing friends also have an Achille’s heel: their ability to gobble up carbon is matched by their propensity to burn. Forest fires free stored carbon mightily fast and disrupt carbon-storing ability over many years.

Kindling not firewood

One new paper published by researchers from the University of California, Davis, shows that in the context of climate change, forests may no longer be the go-to ecosystems for carbon storage. Decades of fire suppression has left California’s forests rich with fuel while warming temperatures and drought increase the risk of wildfires. Overall, they write, the higher incidence of such fires effectively turned the state’s forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources.

Grasslands, the team surprisingly reports, are more resilient carbon sink ecosystems than forests in today’s California. The findings warrant including grasslands in the state’s cap-and-and trade market, the authors add.

“Looking ahead, our model simulations show that grasslands store more carbon than forests because they are impacted less by droughts and wildfires,” says lead author Pawlok Dass. “This doesn’t even include the potential benefits of good land management to help boost soil health and increase carbon stocks in rangelands.”

Biomass in forests is very top heavy, in that most of it is stored in wood and leaves above ground. By contrast, most biomass in grasslands is concentrated under the surface. Fires can’t draw this biomass as fuel since there’s not enough oxygen to sustain combustion below the surface. Because of this, carbon stored in underground biomass isn’t affected by wildfires — which are a serious threat in the context of climate change.

To gauge how forests and grasslands would fare as climate sinks in the future, the team ran simulations of four scenarios:

  • Warming limited to 3.06 degrees F (1.7 degrees C) of warming by 2100 as a result of a massive drop in global carbon emissions — yes, this was considered the “positive” scenario.
  • A business as usual scenario, under which carbon emissions continue unabated. This scenario sees a temperature increase of up to 8.64 degrees F (4.8 degrees C) by 2100.
  • Climate-change-induced periodic intervals of drought — similar to the weather patterns generated by La Niña/El Niño.
  • A ‘megadrought’ scenario, lasting for a century or longer.

California’s forests were more reliable carbon sinks than grasslands only under the first scenario, the team explains. It’s extremely unlikely that those conditions will ever come to pass, as the scenario requires more aggressive global greenhouse gas reductions than those called for under the Paris Climate Agreement (and we’re not even meeting those yet). As things stand now, grasslands may become the only secure net carbon sinks through to 2101, the team explains.

Grassland or forest evolution.

Grassland (A) and forest (B) evolution in response to 21st-century climate changes. Blue shows expansion while red indicates contraction. Forests retreat in all future climates except those associated with aggressive emissions reductions (RCP 2.6), the team found.
Image credits Pawlok Dass et al. 2018 Environ. Res. Lett.

The team cautions that their findings don’t mean we should cut down forests — far from it. It only goes to show that from a cap-and-trade & carbon-offset perspective, conserving grasslands and promoting rangeland practices that promote carbon sequestration could help more readily meet the state’s emission-reduction goals. While trees stay on the cap-and-trade portfolio, protecting them through strategies meant to limit and combat wildfires — prescribed burns, strategic thinning and replanting, for example — will reduce overall carbon losses.

Trees and forest provide a wealth of environmental services, and we would be wise to conserve them. Finally, while grasslands may become the more reliable carbon sinks, forests still have the ability to soak up much more carbon per unit or surface than grasslands.

“In a stable climate, trees store more carbon than grasslands,” said Professor Benjamin Houlton, a paper co-author. “But in a vulnerable, warming, drought-likely future, we could lose some of the most productive carbon sinks on the planet.”

“California is on the frontlines of the extreme weather changes that are beginning to occur all over the world. We really need to start thinking about the vulnerability of ecosystem carbon, and use this information to de-risk our carbon investment and conservation strategies in the 21st century.”

The paper “Grasslands may be more reliable carbon sinks than forests in California” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Wildfires roar through Southern Cali as NASA and ESA satellites watch, powerless to intervene

The scope and destructiveness of Southern California’s wildfires were captured in chilling detail by ESA satellites earlier this week.

Ventura wildfires.

Image via DailyDot.

Wildfires have turned large swaths of California into a Mordoresque landscape over the last few months, but flames won’t seem to spare the golden state. Dramatic pictures of the most recent blaze to erupt in Southern California were captured by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 spacecraft on Tuesday, Dec. 5, revealing areas of active fires and a massive burn scar a stone throw’s away from the city of Ventura.

Wildfires Ventura ESA.

Massive burn scar just east of the California city of Ventura, along with areas of active fires.
Image credits ESA.

Sentinel-2’s photo captures billowing smoke rising from the areas of active fires. The same can be seen in another image captured Tuesday by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard the Terra satellite operated by NASA. MODIS took a wider view than the instruments on Sentinel-2, showcasing the tsunami of smoke flowing west, from Ventura and north Los Angeles’s hills into the Pacific Ocean.

Wildfires Cali NASA.

Image captured by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite shows smoke plumes rising from the Southern California wildfires.
Image credits NASA.

The Ventura fires first caught Monday and spread with a fury due to Southern California’s Santa Ana winds. As of data available on Wednesday afternoon, the flames have burned through 83,000 acres (33,600 hectares), CNN reports. Just this October, Northern California was ravaged by wildfires which cindered 245,000 acres (99,150 hectares), more than 8,900 houses and other buildings, and claimed over 40 lives.