When it comes to climate change, a few topics tend to take center stage. We talk about the alarming rate at which sea levels rise and the communities this phenomenon puts at risk. We also discuss at large about environmental refugees and the impact this massive exodus will have on the local and global economy. But, as the record fires in the Amazon rainforest and the ongoing wildfires in Australia have shown us, climate change could make forest fires more damaging than ever before.
Is Climate Change Really Responsible for Forest Fires?
Although it's not the only reason (arson, campfires, discarding cigarettes, and lighting are also among some of the most common catalysts), it seems that the warming climate is creating the perfect environment for massive, devastating wildfires. Areas that are mostly protected from human activities, such as the Yosemite National Park have seen an increase in wildfires, suggesting that climate change is a major factor that we cannot ignore anymore.
The more the temperatures rise, the more moisture evaporates from the ground, drying it out, making vegetation drier and more flammable than before.
To add to the problem, the winter snowpacks are beginning to melt about one month earlier than usual, which means that the forests are warmer and drier for longer periods than they used to.
Another factor that contributes to the worsening of forest fires is the changes in meteorological patterns causing the low weather fronts to drift away from the area that need it the most. As the temperatures are continuing to increase and precipitation levels to drop, we can expect to see more wildfires, even in areas that weren't prone to these types of events before. Surprisingly, research shows that dry areas may be less at risk to catch fire. That's because the conditions in those places will become so arid that it will take a long while for the vegetation to grow. Moist forested areas, on the other hand, might be at a higher risk of catching fire as the conditions tend to become drier and warmer.
How Climate Change Can Worsen Forest Fires
The explanations above may have already given you a glimpse into the kind of damage the warming climate can create. However, they didn't paint the whole picture.
An Increase in Forest Fires May Affect the Amazon's Ability to Fight Climate Change
The massive wildfires that raged through the Amazon in the summer of 2019 burned an area equal to 8.4 million soccer fields. It may take centuries for this area to recover naturally as the Amazonian ecosystem evolved for millions of years without fires. Simply put, unlike Australia's vegetation, the Amazonian ecosystem lacks the ability to survive the intense heat. And, that can have an effect on the entire world.
As the climate becomes hotter and drier, the amount of rainforest burned could double by 2050 and destroy about 16% of the Amazon. As the fires rage on, the forest may lose its ability to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and start contributing to the problem. It's a phenomenon that scientists call "positive feedback:" as forests burn and die, they release some of the carbon dioxide that they trapped back into the atmosphere. In other words, forest fires may destroy one of the best and largest buffers against climate change.
Climate Change May Send Pests into a Reproductive Frenzy
The effects of climate change reverberate through entire ecosystems. It's like a domino effect with one part of the puzzle affecting the entire piece. Case in point: as the climate gets warmer, a common tree killer known as the mountain pine beetle may go into reproduction overdrive, producing one extra generation per year. That could further affect the forests as these pests kill the trees and bush, causing them to dry out and making them easier to ignite under the right circumstances.
Nature Is Adapting to the Dry Environment
With the rising temperature and drop in precipitation, plants send their roots deeper into the soil looking for water, to nourish themselves. That leaves the soil drier and less capable of slowing down fires. Moreover, plants that like humidity are replaced by vegetation that is better adapted to dry conditions like thyme or rosemary bushes. And, the problem with these plants is that they tend to catch on fire rather easily.
The Future Looks Grim, But There Is Still Hope
Wildfires threaten entire ecosystems directly, but they can also increase air pollution, leading to a spike in lung diseases. The burned vegetation and dry soil might mean that the forest could lose its ability to protect against flash floods.
We can go on and on about how an increase in wildfires puts both nature and humans at risk, but the truth is that we want to focus on what we can do to avoid this grim scenario.
It's still not too late to act and instill change. What we do know can influence the intensity and frequency of these events. For example, we've made it our goal and passion to replant the one billion trees lost during the Amazon fires by 2022. Check our website here if you want to join our tree replanting project.