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Let’s Talk About Wildfires and Climate Change

The way they’ve been blazing across headlines over the last year, it’s getting harder to pretend that wildfire’s aren’t getting increasingly worse. We watched the amazon, then Australia, and now the US as they went up in flames – and it seems unlikely that this pattern will slow down any time soon. It’s not only in the last year that this has become a problem, though. Over the last five years experts have been releasing more and more information which argues that wildfires and climate change are closely related – and we can’t solve one problem without addressing the other. Welcome to the era of megafires.

Back in 2016, NASA reported on intense wildfires across the globe – the pattern of which could clearly be seen from space. These patterns told them that, in some parts of the U.S., the fire season is now about 78 days longer than it was in 1970, burning 6 times as many acres of land, and the Amazon was at the driest it had been for over a decade. We all so how that turned out last year.

According to the BBC, scientific analysis has found an “unequivocal and pervasive” role for global heating in boosting the conditions for fire. The same research team has published finings about the impact of climate change on the recent fires in California as well as those we say in Australia earlier this year.

“The new review covers more than 100 studies published since 2013, and shows that extreme fires occur when natural variability in the climate is superimposed on increasingly warm and dry background conditions resulting from global warming, reports the BBC.

Many forests are accustomed to the occasional blaze. In fact, some even need them in order to thrive. But when these fires happen too frequently, they leave little room for the vegetation to bounce back and it’s altering landscapes across the US. According to John Schwartz for the New York Times, vast forests are being replaced by swathes of grass and shrubs. “Nature’s script has been disrupted by a series of unusually intense, unusually large fires — a product of many factors that include government firefighting policies, climate change and bad luck,” he writes.

That’s bad news for a number of reasons, not least of which is a world with far fewer trees. The planet is getting, for lack of a better word, shrubbier, and a planet with fewer trees is a planet which absorbs less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Easy to see how that could trigger a vicious cycle, plummeting us into the irreversible environmental catastrophe on the brink of which we’re already teetering drunkenly.

Photo by Levan Badzgaradze on Unsplash

It’s quite simple: warmer weather makes forests drier and more susceptible to burning. Rising temperatures leave the ground itself drier, and vegetation more flammable. At the same time, winter melts about a month earlier, leaving forests drier for longer periods of time.

According to Alejandra Borunda, writing for National Geographic, even slight increases in air temperatures can have dangerous consequences.

“Hot air, if it’s not at 100 percent humidity, is like a thirsty sponge: It soaks up water from whatever it touches—plants (living or dead) and soil, lakes and rivers. The hotter and drier the air, the more it sucks up, and the amount of water it can hold increases exponentially as the temperature rises; small increases in the air’s heat can mean big increases in the intensity with which it pulls out water.”

That leaves vast areas of much drier vegetation which easily goes up in flames.

On top of the growing danger of longer, hotter and more frequent fire seasons, we also have urban sprawl into at risk regions to deal with. As we grow cities and residential areas, we move right into areas that could catch fire and lead to loss of property, or worse, lives.

climate change leads to wildfires

Stephen J. Pyne is the author of five books and many articles on the subject of fire and the long history it shares with humans, however, argues that it’s dangerous to focus on climate change’s influence on fire seasons. He fears that by blaming climate change, humans avoid changing behaviours and “fire practices” that often worsen the situation further. Humans, after all, start most fires – whether intentionally or unintentionally. It’s much easier to blame nature than to hold communities, governments and individuals accountable for their actions or inactions when it comes to wildfires and climate change.

We’ve all been saying it for years: There’s no time to wait before we take action to slow climate change. We need to actively pursue and support policies which lower our carbon footprints – and of course, implement better, greener habits at home on an individual level. Climate change is a fact that doesn’t disappear or diminish according to faith, or political affiliation. If you’re not conscious of it, and careful of it, you’re walking around blindfolded by your own narrow-mindedness, and personally responsible for the lives and property that will be lost on account of it in the future.

We need to pay attention to the message that these massive wildfires are telling us about climate change, or we’ll soon watch the world go up in smoke.

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