Hawaii’s Maui island has been hit by disastrous wildfires, driven by severe drought conditions and powerful winds similar to hurricanes. The death toll has reached at least 93 people, and around 1,000 individuals are reported as missing. These fires have wiped out more than 1,700 structures and left the historic town of Lahaina in ruins.
Hawaii’s Governor refers to this fire as the most extensive natural catastrophe in the state’s history and attributes it to global warming. These wildfires are part of a worldwide pattern of extreme weather events, which are increasingly connected to human-caused climate change.
This summer, wildfires have caused widespread destruction globally: Greece has suffered seven known casualties among the numerous fires affecting both the mainland and islands.
In Spain and Portugal, there are currently raging fires that have forced thousands to leave their homes, and Spain has reported 300 deaths due to extreme heat. Just last month, while travelling in the Iberian Peninsula, I personally witnessed two wildfires.
Worst years for forest fires
In Algeria and Tunisia, wildfires have spread across North Africa, resulting in the loss of lives for at least 34 people in 2023. In Canada, a record-breaking wildfire season has consumed over 25,000 acres of forests, leading to striking images of smoke enveloping New York City.
Chile has experienced a grim toll, with over 20 casualties and an astonishing 1,100,000 acres scorched due to the worst drought in a thousand years. Additionally, in Kazakhstan, a tragic loss of life occurred with 14 fatalities, and approximately 150,000 acres were consumed by fire.
2023 is not unique in this regard. Recent data on forest fires reveals a concerning reality: these fires have escalated in both frequency and scale, consuming almost double the amount of tree cover compared to two decades ago.
According to a study by researchers from the University of Maryland, the yearly loss of tree cover due to forest fires has increased by 3 million hectares since 2001, which is roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium. Alarmingly, more than a quarter of all tree cover loss over the past 20 years can be attributed to these fires.
2021 was especially dire, marking one of the worst years for forest fires since 2000. An astonishing 9.3 million hectares of tree cover were lost worldwide, accounting for over a third of the total tree cover loss during that year.
It has been calculated that the total economic losses due to wildfires globally from 2018 to 2022 amounted to $69 billion, out of which insurance companies paid a total of $39 billion.
Ongoing warming of the planet
The risk of wildfires is particularly high in climate zones with irregular rainfall and prolonged warm periods. As urban areas expand into forested regions, the potential for loss increases.
Studies indicate that climate change has made conditions for severe wildfires, like those experienced during Australia’s “black summer” of 2019-2020, four times more likely than in pre-industrial times.
Heatwaves and droughts have also contributed to wildfires in Europe. Even in a country like Sweden, it has become somewhat socially sensitive to wish someone a warm summer break due to the growing number of wildfires.
The worsening wildfire activity is closely tied to climate change. Escalating heatwaves, which are now five times more frequent than they were 150 years ago, combined with the ongoing warming of the planet, have created favourable conditions for more intense fires.
Rising temperatures lead to increased evaporation of moisture from plants and soil, causing them to become drier and more prone to ignition. This increased dryness creates an environment where wildfires can ignite and spread quickly.
Climate change also disrupts traditional rainfall patterns, resulting in unpredictable shifts in where and when rain falls. Such changes affect how vegetation grows and can create imbalances in the materials that can fuel fires.
In areas with reduced rainfall, plants dry out more rapidly, providing ample fuel for wildfires. On the flip side, excessive rainfall can lead to an excess of vegetation, which later becomes fuel when it dries out during dry periods.
A united global effort
Wildfire seasons, which used to occur mainly during specific months, have now become longer and more intense. This extended time frame gives wildfires more chances to start and spread. As a result, resources for managing fires are stretched thin, making it more difficult to effectively fight these fires.
Warmer temperatures can also lead to changes in atmospheric conditions, increasing the chance of thunderstorms and lightning. Dry vegetation, due to climate-induced dryness, becomes an easy target for fires caused by lightning, especially in areas where lightning was previously rare.
The connection between climate change and wildfires can create loops that make the problem worse. For example, as wildfires burn, they release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases that cause the greenhouse effect, leading to more global warming.
This, in turn, worsens the conditions that make frequent and severe wildfires more likely. In 2021, the forest fires in North America and Eurasia released nearly half a gigaton of carbon.
The surge in major wildfires in recent years worldwide is a direct result of the intertwined relationship between climate change and the environment. The impacts are far-reaching, affecting ecosystems, air quality, human health, economies, and even climate change itself. Cleaning up and rebuilding after wildfires can take months or even years.
A report from the United Nations Environment Programme predicts that the number of wildfires in the world will increase by 50 per cent by 2100. Addressing the wildfire crisis requires a comprehensive approach, including efforts to reduce the emissions that cause climate change and strategies to manage the risks of wildfires.
As the world deals with the wide-ranging effects of climate change, a united global effort is crucial in order to address the growing threat of major wildfires.