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Africa's wet forests have seen an alarming rise in wildfires

A recent study has unveiled a concerning trend in the traditionally damp landscapes of Africa. Over an 18-year span, the number of wildfires has alarmingly doubled in Africa’s wet forests, especially in the vast Congo Basin.

The uptick in fire activity in these regions mirrors similar increases observed in other wet forests globally, including the U.S. Pacific Northwest and the Amazon.

This pattern indicates a shift in the ecological dynamics of these areas, underscoring the urgent need to reevaluate the susceptibility of wet forests to fires.

The study represents the first extensive examination of fire incidents in West and Central Africa’s lush, tropical forests.

Utilizing satellite imagery, the researchers tracked active fires from 2003 to 2021, discovering a clear rise in fire frequency, particularly in the Northwest Congolian Lowland Forests. By 2021, the number of fires per 10,000 square kilometers surged by 400 annually.

“There were several areas with strong trends of increasing fire, mainly in the Congo Basin. In contrast, there were almost no locations where fire was decreasing,” wrote the researchers.

Impact of human activity on wet forest fires

Traditionally, fires in Africa’s wet forests were thought to be minor, especially when compared to those in drier woodlands and savannas. The lack of comprehensive research left many questions about the characteristics and drivers of these fires unanswered.

The escalation of fires in wet forests is deeply connected to human activities, such as deforestation. This not only reduces forest cover but also fragments the remaining forested areas, increasing their susceptibility to fires.

Consequently, these human-driven changes foster drier conditions particularly at the forest edges, where the majority of fires tend to ignite.

Weather patterns and wet forest fires

Furthermore, the experts identified a pronounced correlation between the occurrence of fires in these wet forests and weather patterns, particularly high temperatures and vapor pressure deficits, which are indicative of elevated plant water stress levels.

A particularly compelling discovery was the impact of the 2015-2016 “super El Niño” event, which intensified heat and drought conditions in these regions, subsequently leading to a noticeable increase in fires.

“I was surprised at how strong and clear the climate signal was,” said Michael Wimberly, an ecologist at the University of Oklahoma who led the study.

Implications for future forest management

The implications of these findings are profound. As global climate patterns continue to evolve, tropical forest fires are likely to increase in frequency and intensity, posing significant challenges to conservation efforts and biodiversity.

Wimberly emphasized the necessity of rethinking how we view the relationship between climate change and fire in tropical forests. “Tropical forest fires have been long overlooked, but they’re only going to become more important in the future. We can’t ignore them any longer.”

This pivotal study calls for an integrated approach to managing fire risks, particularly by controlling fires at the edges of forests to prevent the destructive feedback loops that increase vulnerability to further fires.

Broader implications of the study

The research underscores the need for enhanced monitoring and intervention strategies that can mitigate the impact of fires on some of the world’s most critical wet forest ecosystems.

The findings from the study not only expand our understanding of the ecological dynamics of wet forests but also serve as a call to action for policymakers, researchers, and conservationists worldwide to address the emerging threats posed by climate change and human influence on these vital habitats.

“Fires are likely to continue increasing as temperatures become hotter and human populations grow and expand, and they will have negative impacts on carbon storage as well as biodiversity and human livelihoods derived from forest resources,” wrote the study authors.

“To date there has been limited research on fire in African forests, and more work is needed to understand how ENSO and other climate modes influence regional patterns of fire risk; assess the impacts of increasing fire on carbon dynamics, biodiversity, and forest resources; and develop more effective strategies for predicting fire danger and preventing destructive wildfires.”

The study is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


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