More intense and longer duration wildfires have ravaged countries all around the world. The thread that weaves all these wildfires together is global warming and the catalyst is heat, the harbinger of fire. Extreme heat exacerbates wildfires making this the new abnormal. Warmer temperatures dry out vegetation which fuels the fires, less precipitation and dry winds also play a role. It is hard to refute the link between the climate crisis and wildfires. A June attribution study showed that climate change is responsible for last year’s heat and wildfires in the northern hemisphere. An IPCC special report also made the connection between the climate crisis and wildfires. Most notably widespread are ravaging much of Australia as the year comes to an end.
The situation is worse in places that are used to wildfires but extreme heat in unusual places like the Arctic are fueling unprecedented fires. Wildfires emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as part of a feedback loop and Arctic wildfires are part of a unique feedback loop in which peat releases massive carbon stores further exacerbating global warming. Wildfires also produce black carbon which settles on the Arctic ice and absorbs sunlight, exacerbating global warming.The Arctic fires emitted 50 megatons of carbon dioxide in June. As of July there were more than 100 wildfires burning across the Arctic Circle. Some of these fires were more than 247,105 acres making them among the biggest fires in 2019. In Alaska alone almost 400 wildfires ravaged 600,000 acres. Fires in the Russia, including hundreds of fires in Siberia released 300,000 megatons of carbon dioxide in July. To appreciate the scale of this year’s Arctic fires, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the 2019 Arctic fires eclipsed the cumulative total of all GHG emissions from Arctic fires in the previous decade.
This year in California wildfires burned more than 250,000 acres, costing $80 billion in damage and economic losses. Millions of people were left without power due to the blazes. Although the fire season was bad this year in California, it was even worse in 2018 when 1.8 million acres burned in the state or 2017 when 1.3 million acres burned. In 2018 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. The trend is unmistakable, 7 of California’s 10 most destructive fires have happened in the last four years.
The Amazon, one of the world’s largest carbon stores, saw more than 80,000 forest fires this year, an increase of 75 percent from 2018. Some of the most devastating fires occurred in the Amazon in Brazil. However, many of these forests were deliberately set alight as part of slash and burn agriculture. A total of 1,900,800 acres of rainforest was destroyed in Brazil in 2019.
There were more fires burning in sub-Saharan Africa (Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in August than there were at the peak of the fires in Brazil. However, most of these fires were due to slash and burn agricultural practices. Similar fires burned across Indonesia. Heat and high winds caused a hundred wildfires that burned 3,700 acres in Lebanon making this the worst fire season in decades. There was also a big upsurge in wildfires in Europe. Together these fires offer a foretaste of what we can expect from a warming world.