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Extreme wildfires have doubled in the last 20 years

Over the past two decades, the world has seen a dramatic escalation in the frequency and intensity of extreme wildfires, a trend driven largely by human-induced climate warming.

An extensive analysis of satellite records led by Calum Cunningham, a researcher from the University of Tasmania in Australia, revealed that the occurrence of wildfires with significant “radiative power” increased by more than double from 2003 to 2023.

Even more concerning, the intensity of the 20 most extreme fires each year has also more than doubled – a consistent trend that appears to be accelerating.

Alarming results of the study

“Climate change is exacerbating wildfire conditions, but evidence is lacking for global trends in extreme fire activity itself,” wrote the researchers.

“Here we identify energetically extreme wildfire events by calculating daily clusters of summed fire radiative power using 21 years of satellite data, revealing that the frequency of extreme events (≥99.99th percentile) increased by 2.2-fold from 2003 to 2023, with the last 7 years including the 6 most extreme.”

“Although the total area burned on Earth may be declining, our study highlights that fire behavior is worsening in several regions – particularly the boreal and temperate conifer biomes – with substantial implications for carbon storage and human exposure to wildfire disasters.”

Wildfire hotspots

The geographical spread of extreme fires is extensive, predominantly affecting North America, northern Eurasia, and Australia.

Specifically, temperate conifer forests in the western United States have witnessed an 11-fold increase in extreme fires, while Earth’s northernmost forests covering regions like Alaska, Canada, and Russia have seen more than a seven-fold rise.

The feedback loop of climate change

The repercussions of energetically extreme fires are vast and multifaceted. As forests play a crucial role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, the loss of trees due to fires not only releases stored CO2 back into the air but also exacerbates global warming, creating a detrimental feedback loop.

This cycle of destruction and warming continues to dry out landscapes, making them more susceptible to future fires.

In addition to environmental damage, the health implications are severe. The smoke from these fires blankets large regions, leading to significant health issues and premature deaths which far exceed those caused directly by the flames.

Wildfire management and climate change

The increasing severity and regularity of wildfires highlight the urgent need for adaptive strategies to cope with a climate more prone to such extremes.

Effective forest management at the local level is crucial to mitigate the risk and impact of severe fires. This involves not just firefighting strategies but also preventive measures to manage and maintain forest health.

The implications of this study, though alarming, are a call for action. The research is a reminder that the effects of climate change are not a distant threat – but a present reality impacting ecosystems and communities globally.

Wildfires in a hotter world

In a hotter climate, fires will continue to become more frequent and intense. Higher temperatures dry out vegetation, making it more flammable and increasing the likelihood of wildfires.

Prolonged heatwaves and drought conditions further exacerbate the issue, reducing the moisture content in forests and grasslands. Additionally, warmer climates can extend the fire season, leading to longer periods of heightened fire risk.

The combination of these factors means that when fires do ignite, they spread more rapidly and are harder to control, often resulting in larger and more destructive wildfires.

This trend is being observed worldwide, with notable increases in fire activity in regions like California, Australia, and the Mediterranean.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.


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