The Australian bushfires could be just a taste of what’s to come, according to scientists who claim that human-induced climate change is fuelling wildfires.
The current bushfires across Australia, which have so far killed 24 people and at least a billion animals, according to estimates, will become ‘normal’ conditions, the scientists claim.
‘The average temperature in Australia in December 2019 was exceptionally hot compared to the historical record, and played a key role in the severity and spread of the recent bushfires,’ said Professor Richard Betts at the Met Office Hadley Centre.
‘Those temperatures would be normal at nearly 3 degrees C (5.4°F) global warming.’
Professor Betts and other British and Australian scientists used an online tool to conduct a ‘rapid response review’ of 57 peer-reviewed studies on climate change.
All studies showed links between climate change and increased frequency of severity of ‘fire weather’ – periods with high fire risk due to high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall and high winds.
Rising global temperatures, more frequent heatwaves and associated droughts in some regions increase the likelihood of wildfires by stimulating hot and dry conditions.
Horses in a paddock as the Gospers Mountain Fire impacts a property at Bilpin, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney
‘Overall, the 57 papers reviewed clearly show human-induced warming has already led to a global increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather, increasing the risks of wildfire,’ said lead author Dr Matthew Jones at the University of East Anglia.
‘This has been seen in many regions, including the western US and Canada, southern Europe, Scandinavia and Amazonia.’
The 2018 fires in Sweden were about 10 per cent more likely in the current climate than in the pre-industrial climate, said the review, which has been published on the ScienceBrief online platform.
In the Amazon, meanwhile, climate-driven changes in fire weather are made worse by landscape fragmentation caused by deforestation.
Human-induced warming is also increasing fire risk in other regions, including Siberia and Australia.
Australia’s bushfires, which have killed 27 people and scorched more than 10 million hectares of land, are still raging across parts of New South Wales and Victoria in the south west.
Image on January 2, 2020, shows, a large fire burning in northeast Tasmania. The blaze is part of a network of suspicious fires near Fingal which have burned across more than 6600 hectares
The fires had killed an estimated half a billion animals by January 4, with the number expected to continue to rise.
However, there is also evidence that humans have significant potential to control how this fire risk translates into fire activity, Dr Jones says, in particular through land management decisions and ignition sources.
‘Ultimately, society as a whole needs to carefully consider how it manages its relationship with fire in the “wildland-urban interface” where urban and natural areas meet,’ he told MailOnline.
‘Key to minimising risk is managing fuel loads in areas where humans come into close contact with increasingly fire-prone vegetation.
Fire approaches the village of Nerrigundah, Australia in December. The tiny village has been among the hardest hit by Australia’s devastating wildfires, about with two thirds of the homes destroyed and a 71-year-old man killed
A 70-metre high wall of flames bore down in the Blue Mountains, north-west of Sydney in December
‘Embedding communities within forest exaggerates their risk of being horribly affected by forest fires when they do, inevitably, occur – so building further and further into forests is a bad idea.’
California also suffered from a series of wildfires last year, which burnt over 100,000 hectares of land.
Fire weather seasons around the world have got longer by about 20 per cent on average, particularly in closed-canopy forest areas, the review says.
A kangaroo jumps in a field amidst smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma on January 4
Fire and thick smoke covers the Australian village of Nerrigundah in New South Wales a hellish shade of red
A rescuer approaches a lost looking koala to offer it some help. The government in New South Wales has dropped sweet potatoes and carrots onto forest floors to offer animals something to eat
‘Wildfires can’t be prevented, and the risks are increasing because of climate change,’ said Professor Iain Prentice at Imperial College London.
‘This makes it urgent to consider ways of reducing the risks to people.
‘Land planning should take the increasing risk in fire weather into account.’
‘Fire weather does occur naturally but is becoming more severe and widespread due to climate change,’ said Professor Betts.
Flames from a controlled fire burn up tree trunks as firefighters work at building a containment line at a wildfire near Bodalla, Australia
Fire burns peatland and forest inside Sebangau national park on September 14, 2019 in the outskirts of Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia
‘Limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius would help avoid further increases in the risk of extreme fire weather.’
Scientists aim to keep the average rise in global temperature below 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) this century, as set out in the Paris Agreement in 2015.
The scientists of the review are from the University of East Anglia, University of Exeter, Imperial College London, Met Office Hadley Centre – a government-backed UK research centre – and CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, a department of Australia’s science research agency.
The 57 peer-reviewed papers were published since the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2013.
ScienceBrief is a new online platform for scientists to gather and review current scientific knowledge.
HOW ARE WILDFIRES STARTED?
The amount of land in North America devastated by wildfires each year is set to rise, according to new research (file photo)
The ‘Thomas Fire’ destroyed 281,893 acres in California in December 2017.
Additionally, British Columbia’s Nazko Complex Fire last year consumed more than a million acres, making it the largest ever recorded in the province.
But the amount of land destroyed by wildfires each year will only go up in western and northern North America in the years to come, according to a new report published in the journal Plos One.
Up to 90 percent of US wildfires are caused by people, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
These fires can be initiated by unattended campfires, piles of burning debris, haphazardly discarded cigarettes or arson.
The remaining tenth of wildfires not started by humans are attributed to either lighting or lava.