Forest fires and climate change: Is there a link?

While the cases of forest fires have been increasing all over the world, most of them have been due to human activities and carelessness. Forest Survey of India believes that 95% of the fires caused are due to human negligence. In this post, I’m going to be looking at whether climate change is having an effect on the intensity and frequency of the caused forest fires.

We need to understand two things if we are to see if climate change will have an impact on forest fires:

(1) What kind of effects does climate change cause?

(2) Do these effects supplement causes of fires?

(3) What has been the trend in the last 10 years?

Effects of climate change on a global scale

Climate change in a global scale does not necessarily mean that the world will get hot everywhere. Climate change is different from global warming. There are places that have been getting hotter, like the Arctics. But there are other places on Earth that have been facing different responses to climate change. For example, the British Isles have been facing much wetter summers than have been seen before. India has seen dryer monsoons in the last 5 years than before. Likewise, Canada has been experiencing drier winters than previously experienced. USA experienced an unusually frigid winter last year.

Due to climate change, the climate around the world is likely to become more extreme.

How does this relate to forest fires?

The number of forest fires have been increasing, but almost all of these fires are because of either 1) human negligence (like throwing cigarette buds) or 2) more fuel for forests to burn1.

The second point is important, because in the past, forests would regularly burn and use up the fuel, preventing huge fires. Fires were an important part of the ecosystem. Humans, in our quest to manage forests, have prevented these fires by dousing them as soon as they start. Forest managers are also reluctant to practice controlled burning: the deliberate act of burning some sections of the forest. This would use up wood fuel, and fires that occur because of humans or natural causes would then not reach disastrous proportions.

The spread of chir pine forests in northwestern Himalayas, because of their fast-growing nature, has also been a factor in forest fires.

When human negligence and more wood fuel is couple with the drier and hotter than usual conditions that come from climate change, we create a volatile situation. Dry and hot conditions are conducive to start and propagation of forest fires.

Wherever forest fires have been traditionally observed, we see that these places have become drier and warmer than they generally have been. The northwestern Himalayas this year saw much less rainfall than before during the months of February and March. North India has been facing warmer winters over the last 3 years as well (winter truly struck New Delhi only in the 2nd week of January this year). Consequently, the first case of fire reported from this region was Feb 2, compared to late Feb in the last 3 years.

It doesn’t help that there are huge forests of chir pine planted by the forest department. It seemed like a good idea in the beginning: they grow quickly and are a valuable source of lac, an important non-timber forest product. But they are also extremely inflammable.

Trends in the last few years

Fire seen from the highway in Fort McMurray, May 4, 2016. (Serghei Cebotari)

We see dangerous trends in the boreal forests of North America. High latitudes of North America have been warming over the last few years. Warm and dry conditions have helped increase the magnitude of forest fires. 

The 2015 assessment in Canada found that a total of 7,068 forest fires burned about 3.9 million hectares. The number of fires was slightly above the 10-year average, but the area burned was 50 percent higher.  

Studies have shown that the risk of forest fires will increase up to 4 times as compared to the last few decades, and by the end of the century, forest fires are expected to burn double the area it currently burns in Canada.

While the data for India is insufficient, we would be foolish to expect anything different.

Should this worry you? 

YES! This is alarming, largely because of the impact it is going to have on an already warming planet. Forest fires form a positive feedback loop:

warm, dry conditions —> more forest fires —> more carbon released into the atmosphere —> warmer, drier conditions.

Forests, especially the northern boreal forests are massive carbon sinks, storing up to 50% of the world’s soil carbon content. The trees themselves store massive amounts of carbon within them, all of which will be released into the atmosphere in case of a fire.

While the man-made forest fires can be massively minimized by simply being careful, naturally caused fires are likely to cause huge damages because of poor management and hot/dry conditions.

It is extremely important that we update our management techniques and work even harder in curbing the rate of climate change.


References:

  1. Michael Shellenberger, 2020. Apocalypse Never. Chapter 1, Section 7.
  2. An Introduction to Trends in Extreme Weather and Climate Events: Observations, Socioeconomic Impacts, Terrestrial Ecological Impacts, and Model Projections; Gerald A. Meehl,a Thomas Karl,b David R. Easterling,b Stanley Changnon,c Roger Pielke Jr.,a David Changnon,d Jenni Evans,e Pavel Ya. Groisman,b Thomas R. Knutson,f Kenneth E. Kunkel,c Linda O. Mearns,a Camille Parmesan,g Roger Pulwarty,h Terry Root,i Richard T. Sylves,j Peter Whetton,k and Francis Zwiers, 2000.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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