WILDFIRES AROUND THE WORLD ATTRIBUTED TO CLIMATE CHANGE

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29 august 2019

The Amazon, Siberia, Indonesia: A World of Fire

The growing intensity of wildfires and their spread to new corners of the globe raises fears that climate change is exacerbating the dangers.

By Kendra Pierre-Louis, The New York Times, August 29, 2019

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In South America, the Amazon basin is ablaze. Halfway around the world in central Africa, vast stretches of savanna are going up in flame. Arctic regions in Siberia are burning at a historic pace.

While the Brazilian fires have grown into a full-blown international crisis, they represent only one of many significant areas where wildfires are currently burning around the world. Their increase in severity and spread to places where fires were rarely previously seen is raising fears that climate change is exacerbating the danger.

Hotter, drier temperatures “are going to continue promoting the potential for fire,” said John Abatzoglou, an associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Idaho, describing the risk of “large, uncontainable fires globally” if warming trends continue.

Wildfires contribute to climate change because not only do they release carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere but they can also kill trees and vegetation that remove climate-warming emissions from the air.

This year has so far seen a dramatic increase in wildfires in some arctic regions that traditionally rarely burned.

Since July, fire has charred about six million acres of Siberian forest, an area roughly the size of the state of Vermont. In Alaska, fires have consumed more than 2.5 million acres of tundra and snow forest, leading researchers to suggest that the combination of climate change and wildfires could permanently alter the region’s forests.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and some studies have noted that, as it warms, “there also is expected to be more lightning,” said Dr. Abatzoglou, and in remote areas, lightning is a significant cause of fires.

Some researchers warn that as fires strike places where they were previously rare, it threatens to contribute to a feedback loop in which wildfires potentially accelerate climate change by adding significant amounts of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.

And though the Amazon is widely described as the world’s lungs, a reference to the forest’s ability to produce oxygen while storing carbon dioxide, forests like those in Siberia are as important to the global climate system as tropical rainforests.

One reason that arctic wildfires are particularly concerning is that in addition to trees and grassland burning, peat also burns, a dirt-like material in the ground itself that releases much more carbon dioxide when it burns than do trees per acre of fire. In the past, peat fires in northern climates were rare because of moisture that is now disappearing as the region becomes warmer and drier.

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