The truth is hard. Hard to process, hard to digest, and hard to accept.
When news hit earlier this month that it was the hottest October recorded in history, I was struck by the truth I have been –for quite some time- avoiding to see and accept. For some 30 years now, despite all the IPCC reports, conferences and major global negotiations about climate change, we have been denying to genuinely change business as usual plans in favour of convenience and fear of what a truly sustainable future would look like.
This year is turning out to be the embodiment of consequences due to our refusal to change our behaviour. The unprecedented climate crisis of 2019, which so far is the second-hottest year on record, has been devastating for many regions of the world. Extreme floods hit Venice, long-lasting heatwaves spread across central Europe and destructive hurricanes ravaged Southeast Asia. This year has been a record-shattering year of all sorts.
However, in my mind, 2019 will always be remembered as the year of major wildfires.
We saw wildfires around the globe that lasted for many days and burned anything that stood in their way with fury, including homes, schools, churches, and in some cases, entire communities. From Brazil to Siberia and California to Australia, this year was marked by the catastrophic dimensions of uncontrollably large forest fires. In New South Wales, Australia thousands citizens have evacuated their homes, hundreds of schools are closed and while we cannot yet say that koalas are “functionally extinct”, their population and habitat is taking a big hit because of the current fires. The state of California declared an emergency as 2 million people had the power cut off and hundreds of thousands were forced to evacuate their homes, while others found their entire neighborhoods destroyed by the fires. In Siberia, the extent of the wildfires caused residents of nearby cities to suffer from very poor air quality as the air was clouded by thick smoke.
Undeniably, climate change has direct and indirect effects on wildfires. Before I go into more details about this, I want to acknowledge that wildfires are a natural phenomenon and are bound to occur as part of a normal cycle in nature. Nevertheless, what makes recent wildfires so worrying is their intensity and duration.
Over 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change has a significant role to play in this, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how it worsens existing natural phenomena.
Regarding the California wildfires, for example, where 200,000 acres burned in 2019, the effect of climate change can be seen on two ends. One is in their frequency – 15 out of the 20 largest fires have occurred since 2000.The second is its ability to create the “fuel” needed for an out-of-control wildfire: drier air and drier plant life. Over the past century, California saw an increase of 3 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the global average of 1 degree Fahrenheit. This essentially translates to warm winds with very low humidity, which can very quickly dry both land and vegetation, leaving them an easy prey to fires. If we also take into consideration the fact that in 2019 winds were described as historically strong by meteorologists, it is easy to see why so many wildfires took place in the Golden state.
This year the Amazon rainforest was gravely hit too. It is estimated that during wildfires this summer over 7,200 square miles of rainforest was burnt. A fire of this magnitude is not a naturally occurring phenomenon and according to experts can only occur because of accidental (or intentional) human-lit fires. In these region, these are typically started either by farmers or loggers in attempts to clear or utilize the land for crops and livestock.
Climate change in this case had a big role to play in the extensiveness of these wildfires, since normally the Amazon has the ability to stifle the fires before they get out of control because of its humidity. To put it simply, in humid rainforests the temperature conditions do not favor the start and/or the proliferation of fires like they do in dryer climates, such as dry bushlands. This year though was particularly hot and dry (remember? 2019 is the second-hottest year on record) which prevented, to an extent, this naturally occurring extinguishing from happening.
More recently, there are huge wildfires currently happening in Australia, where around 1.7 million hectares have been burnt so far. The regions of southern and eastern Australia are most severely affected by the fires and it is exactly these states where more extreme conditions were observed during spring and summer (i.e. less rain and higher temperatures). Even though there are other factors that play into the occurrence of these wildfires in Australia, they are mostly fuelled by the lack of rain, which as mentioned earlier creates dry fuel for the fire. This in turn is associated with a record–shattering drought in Australia. According to an article on the Guardian: “Greenhouse gas emissions have a clear impact on rising temperatures and, through that, an indirect link on increased dryness in eastern Australia” .
While there is no clear cause and effect relationship between climate change and wildfires, there is clearly a relationship between the two. Our ecosystem is multileveled and complex, and a myriad of factors contribute to adverse effects. When you dabble with a delicate balance, you can end up with extreme consequences.
In the case of global warming, a seemingly small change like that of a 1°C of warming, can cause a feedback loop. Droughts cause massive forest fires, which lead to the loss of trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, so a loss of trees result in even higher temperatures, and the cycle goes back to an intensified drought. Talk about a vicious cycle!
The chances are that we have many more wildfires to see in the future. But here is the positive part: there is still time to prevent this year from being the norm. The time to have our voices heard is now. We need to push world leaders for legally binding laws and more ambitious climate action. The next step is to see what decisions will be taken at COP25, in Barcelona. I choose to remain –cautiously- optimistic.
Written by Yianna Papaioannou Sigalou