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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Explained: New findings strengthen link between climate change and wildfires

While wildfires are typical in both California and parts of Australia in the summer months, the intensity and scale of wildfires that these areas have seen in recent years has raised some concerns among scientists about the linkages between human-induced climate change and fire risk.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 27, 2020 12:03:48 pm
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump dismissed concerns that climate change could be fuelling the wildfires in California that have forced thousands of people to leave their homes

In an updated review of scientific articles that try to establish a link between climate change and fire risk published since January 2020, scientists note that human-induced climate change promotes the conditions on which wildfires depend, enhancing their likelihood and challenging suppression efforts. The update focuses on the ongoing wildfires in the western US and the bushfires that ravaged southeastern Australia in 2019-2020.

Further, the authors note that climate change increases the frequency and severity of fire weather around the world and that land management alone “cannot explain recent increases in #wildfire because increased fire weather from climate change amplifies fire risk where fuels remain available”.

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump dismissed concerns that climate change could be fuelling the wildfires in California that have forced thousands of people to leave their homes and have destroyed millions of acres of land. Instead, Trump has blamed poor forest management as the reason for the wildfires and said, “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch”.

However, this is not the first time that Trump has made such a claim. In 2018, when California was facing another season of devastating wildfires, Trump said, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”.

A new front in the Biden-Trump battle for the suburbs: Wildfires President Donald Trump speaks during a wildfires briefing at the Sacramento McClellan Airport in McClellan Park, Calif., (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

What factors can influence fire weather?

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was published in 2013, identified a few factors that could influence the way wildfires play out. These include global increase in average temperatures, global increases in the frequency, intensity and extent of heatwaves (breaching of historically extreme temperature thresholds) and regional increases in the frequency, duration and intensity of droughts.

If wildfires are usual in areas with warm and dry weather conditions, why are scientists interested in studying them further?

While wildfires are typical in both California and parts of Australia in the summer months, the intensity and scale of wildfires that these areas have seen in recent years has raised some concerns among scientists about the linkages between human-induced climate change and fire risk.

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What does the new analysis tell us?

Scientists are wary of attributing any single contemporary event to climate change, mainly because of the difficulty in completely ruling out the possibility of the event having been caused by some other reason, or a result of natural variability. However, in the results of the new analysis, the authors note that natural variability is superimposed on the increasingly warm and dry conditions that have resulted from climate change, which has led to more extreme fires and more extreme fire seasons.

California wildfires, California fires, Oroville wildfires, Oroville fire, World news, Indian Express Firefighters Nick Grinstead and Trevor While battle the Creek Fire in the Shaver Lake community of Fresno County, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Further, they note that there is an “unequivocal and pervasive role of climate change in increasing the intensity and length in which fire weather occurs”. Significantly, the authors have said that while land management is also likely to contribute to the wildfires, it does not alone account for the recent increases in the extent and severity of the wildfires in the western US and in southeast Australia.

What happened in Australia last year?

Last year, photographs of Australian towns and villages that were ravaged by the bushfires made global headlines. While bushfires are routine in Australia in the summer months, the scale and intensity of the fires last year was unprecedented. The fires killed thousands of animals and impacted more than 10 million hectares of forest land, which is an area the size of South Korea. Scientists suggested at the time that there was strong evidence to suggest that the bushfires, which were especially fierce last year, could be linked to climate change.

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