Since the turn of the century, anthropogenic global warming has tightened its grip around the world – resulting in an increased occurrence of extreme weather events. In 2018, more than 80% of the planet has boosted their odds of experiencing record-setting hot events, while more than 50% of the planet has of wet events. While eastern U.S. experiences massive rainfall and flooding, the opposite end of the country has seen an increase in the magnitude and intensity of wildfires as a result of high temperatures and heat waves. On 30th July, 2018, the United States hosted 90 active large fires throughout the country that have consumed nearly 900,000 acres. The largest of them, the Carr Wildfire in California, has resulted in 6 deaths and the destruction of more than 500 structures at the time.
So how does global warming lead to an increase in wildfires around the globe? Wildfires usually occur in arid or semi-arid landscaped around the world, where the dry heat of the summer acts as the perfect catalyst to devoid plants of much-needed moisture, making them prone to catch fire. In the western U.S., global warming induced climate change has resulted in more intense aridification of the already semi-arid landscape. Shorter winter and spring seasons have resulted in lower snowpack, an essential source of moisture for plants during the summer season. During summer, an increase in temperature and the lack of rainfall in the region has steadily escalated the number of hot days. Since the 1970’s, the fire season has become 105 days longer – creating more days where forests and grasslands are dried out and ready to burn. It’s no wonder that the average number of large fires (larger than 1,000 acres) has tripled during this period, burning more than six times the area it did in the 1970’s.
The Carr Wildfire, too, occurred as a result of such intense climatic conditions in California – years of snowpack deficit coupled with prolonged heat wave, dry conditions and wind speed up to 70mph. Till date, it had burnt around 90,000 acres whereas being only 5% contained. The town of Redding in Shasta County suffered the most as around 37,000 people evacuated their homes. Forest fires in 2018 have cumulatively burned down 4.15 million acres in the United States, a 14% increase over the past 10-year average.
2018 also witnessed the deadliest wildfire in Europe since 1900’s. Affecting the coastal region of Greece, the flames spread through dry pine forests of the region – causing over 90 fatalities. All throughout Europe, summer heat has soared since the past decade. Even cooler countries like Norway, Sweden, and Finland saw temperatures push pass 90 degrees in 2018, an event never recorded in recent history before. Japan, on the other side of the world, hit 106 degrees, its hottest temperature ever.
Stanford University climate scientist, Noah Diffenbaugh, stated that, “We now have very strong evidence that global warming has already put a thumb on the scales, upping the odds of extremes like severe heat and heavy rainfall.” The United States decision to sign out of the Paris Climate Agreement, along with its rollback on fossil fuel usage, is sure to amplify the already unprecedented level of forest fires in the country. If greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, the total number of days in which the potential for wildfire is high is projected to increase by 46% between 2000 and 2050.