By assessing over 500 research articles and re-analyzing state-of-the-art datasets from satellite data and computer models, a team of researchers led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) has found that the risk of wildfires is rising globally due to climate change.
Since fire weather (hot and dry conditions conducive to wildfires) is increasing under climate change, landscapes all over the world are becoming more susceptible of burning more frequently and severely. In the future, the impact of climate change on fire risk is predicted to escalate if global temperatures continue to rise.
The scientists explored the relationship between past, present, and future wildfire trends by taking into account not only a warming climate, but also other factors that significantly impact the onset and spread of wildfires, such as human activity, land use, and changing vegetation productivity.
The analyses revealed that the annual fire weather season has increased by 14 days per year from 1979 to 2019, and the frequency of days with extreme fire weather has risen by 10 days during the same period. Until now, these increases have been particularly pronounced in western North America, Amazonia, and the Mediterranean. If temperatures will rise over 2°C above pre-industrial levels though, the boreal forests of Siberia, Canada, and Alaska will most likely experience similar conditions, and if they reach 3°C, all world regions will face unprecedented fire weather.
“Wildfires can have massive detrimental impacts on society, the economy, human health and livelihoods, biodiversity, and carbon storage. These impacts are generally magnified in the case of forest wildfires,” said study lead author Matthew Jones, a research fellow in Environmental Sciences at UEA.
“Clarifying the link between forest wildfire trends and climate change is critical to understanding wildfire threats in future climates. Societies can either push with or pull against the rising risks of fire under climate change, and regional actions and policies can certainly be important for preventing wildfires or reducing their severity.”
“Ultimately, though, we will be fighting the tide of escalating fire risks as the world warms further. Doubling down on efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limiting warming to below 2°C is the most effective thing we can do to avoid the worst risks of wildfire on the global scale,” he concluded.
The study is published in the journal Reviews of Geophysics.