Massive Wildfires are Burning Around the World
Alberta’s unusually early and large fire is just the latest of many huge fires on an earth that’s grown hotter with more extreme weather.
Earlier this year, large wildfires hit spots on opposite ends of the world, from Tasmania to Oklahoma-Kansas.
Last year, Alaska and California pushed the US to a record 10-M acres burned.
Massive fires hit Siberia, Mongolia and China last year and Brazil’s fire season has increased by a month over the past 30 yrs.
It got so bad that in Y 2009, Australia added a bright Red “catastrophic” to its fire warning index.
“The warmer it is, the more fires we get,” said Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta.
Last week, temperatures pushed past 30C in Alberta, which is unusual for May in Northern Canada.
It is not so simple, but the temperature factor stands out,
There are many factors that contribute to the complex increase in big fires, Mr. Flannigan and several experts said. They include climate change, the way people use land and firefighting methods that leave more fuel, trees and brush, to burn.
“The Alberta wildfires are an excellent example of what we’re seeing more and more of: warming means snow melts earlier, soils and vegetation dries out earlier, and the fire season starts earlier. It’s a train wreck,” University of Arizona climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck says.
Worldwide, the length of Earth’s fire season increased nearly 19% from Y’s 1979 to 2013, according to a study by Mark Cochrane, a professor of fire ecology at South Dakota State University.
Fires had steadily been increasing, but then in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, “we’ve suddenly been hit with lots of these large fires we cannot control,” Prof. Cochrane said.
In terms of acreage burned, the worldwide total may be dropping because of better firefighting, but in North America and Siberia “fires have grown quite a bit due to warming,” Columbia University climate and ecology scientist Park Williams wrote in an email. “My estimate is that global warming has been responsible for about half of this increase.”
For the entire US, the 10-year average number of acres burned in wildfires has more than 2X’d from about 3-M acres in the mid-1980’s to 7-M acres now, according to an analysis of government data.
“Globally we are seeing more fires, bigger fires, more severe fires,” said Kevin Ryan, a retired US Forest Service scientist who is now a fire consultant.
Wildfires in some places, such as Indonesia and Canada, are bad when there is an El Nino, a warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide, because it triggers drought in those regions, Mr. Ryan said.
In Indonesia, changes in land use are a bigger factor than climate, Mr. Ryan said. But elsewhere, it’s temperature and moisture, too much of one and not enough of the other, he said.
By Rhys O’Connell
Paul Ebeling, Editor