Wildfires Are Becoming More Frequent and Intense Globally, Researchers Find

Olive farmers in the Mediterranean basin are among those at the highest risk of increasing and more intense wildfires.

Mar. 8, 2022
By Paolo DeAndreis

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Wildfires will become more fre­quent and intense in the future, accord­ing to a report pub­lished by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal, a non-profit.

The impact of cli­mate change and changes in how land is used for human activ­i­ties will lead to a 14-per­cent increase in extreme fires by 2030.

Even under the low­est emis­sions sce­nario, we will likely see a sig­nif­i­cant increase in wild­fire events.- Researchers, United Nations Environment Program and GRID-Arendal

Estimates show that their num­bers and sever­ity could grow 30 per­cent by 2050 and 50 per­cent by the end of the cen­tury.

Uncontrollable and dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires are becom­ing an expected part of our sea­sonal cal­en­dars,” the sci­en­tists wrote in the report. Wildfires occur on every con­ti­nent except Antarctica, and most regions expe­ri­ence weather con­di­tions con­ducive to the out­break of a wild­fire at some point in the year.”

See Also:Climate Change Threatens Steep-Slope Agriculture

According to the report, more than 30,000 peo­ple die every year from wild­fire smoke expo­sure in the 43 coun­tries ana­lyzed by the researchers.

Other species also pay the price: besides a dev­as­tat­ing loss of habi­tat, the smol­der­ing swathes of land left in a wildfire’s wake are scat­tered with the charred remains of ani­mals and plants pos­si­bly fast-track­ing extinc­tions,” the sci­en­tists wrote.

The researchers pro­vided a few exam­ples of the mas­sive dev­as­ta­tion caused by wild­fires, such as last year in the Pantanal, the world’s largest trop­i­cal wet­land that stretches from Brazil to Bolivia and Paraguay.

Fires in the Pantanal destroyed one-third of what is con­sid­ered one of the world’s most sig­nif­i­cant bio­di­ver­sity hotspots. The researchers added that the chance for the wet­lands to recover fully is low.

The report also fore­casts wild­fires of vary­ing degrees over time, depend­ing on how much green­house gas emis­sions will be cur­tailed in the com­ing decades.

By the end of the cen­tury, the like­li­hood of cat­a­strophic wild­fire events will increase by a fac­tor of 1.31 to 1.57,” the sci­en­tists wrote. Even under the low­est emis­sions sce­nario, we will likely see a sig­nif­i­cant increase in wild­fire events.”

Not only can wild­fires reduce bio­di­ver­sity, but they con­tribute to a cli­mate change feed­back loop by emit­ting huge quan­ti­ties of green­house gases into the atmos­phere, spurring more warm­ing, more dry­ing, more burn­ing,” they added.

The eco­nomic loss caused by wild­fires is also increas­ing over time. In the United States alone, the annu­al­ized eco­nomic bur­den from wild­fire [is] between $71 bil­lion to $348 bil­lion (€65 bil­lion to €318 bil­lion).”

According to the researchers, most nations do not assess the dam­ages caused by wild­fires. Still, they added, the sit­u­a­tion is cer­tainly extreme; it is not yet hope­less.”

Wildfires at sev­eral lat­i­tudes are likely to have severe eco­nomic impacts by destroy­ing crops and agri­cul­tural land, inflict­ing dam­age that can take years to recover from.

Olives are among the crops increas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to wild­fires, which are often fueled by low lev­els of soil mois­ture and an abun­dance of dry veg­e­ta­tion caused by drought, heat­waves and lack of main­te­nance.

In rel­e­vant Mediterranean olive-pro­duc­ing coun­tries such as Greece, Portugal, Italy, Algeria and Turkey, recent wild­fires have destroyed olive grow­ing areas closely con­nected to the local peo­ple’s iden­tity, tra­di­tion and income.

Gianluigi Bacchetta, a biol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the University of Cagliari in Italy, who was not involved in the UNEP report, told Olive Oil Times that tra­di­tional olive grow­ers in the Mediterranean should switch to a proac­tive approach to pre­vent wild­fire dam­age rather than a reac­tive approach.

We need to work on pre­ven­tion, which means to take care of our land,” Bacchetta said. When sum­mer is com­ing, with its hot tem­per­a­tures and dry­ness, those who take care of the olives should mow the grass, remove resid­ual veg­e­ta­tion and any mate­ri­als that could poten­tially fuel a fire.”

He added that the coun­try­side should also be con­stantly mon­i­tored in the riski­est sea­sons, and more action should be taken to ensure that at-risk regions are kept safe.

See Also:Climate Coverage

We wit­ness the phe­nom­e­non of tra­di­tional groves which are often being aban­doned,” Bacchetta said. In the Mediterranean, this hap­pens when cer­tain crops which once brought income to local grow­ers are not prof­itable any­more.”

That not only means fewer sur­veil­lance and pre­ven­tion mea­sures but also fuels inci­dents, includ­ing fires gen­er­ated by ille­gal waste left in deserted areas or wild­fires that start on the side of coun­try roads.

One of the worst wild­fires in recent his­tory in Sardinia spread after a car broke down, stopped by the road­side and caught fire.

From there, the dry veg­e­ta­tion sucked the flames in and in a mat­ter of hours, the wild­fire grew way beyond any pos­si­ble inter­ven­tion,” Bacchetta said.

Fueled by the winds, the flames spread through a large area between Montiferru and Planargia for three days, envelop­ing 14 munic­i­pal­i­ties and dam­ag­ing his­tor­i­cal olive groves.

When such olive groves are burned by fire, farm­ers and agron­o­mists must wait a few months to iden­tify plants that can­not be recov­ered and must be removed, plants that might need seri­ous prun­ing and plants that may poten­tially be recov­ered.

Waiting is essen­tial because that allows us to under­stand what to do with every sin­gle plant affected by fire,” Bacchetta said. Once a tra­di­tional olive grove is hit, the even­tual removal of all the burned plants might be very costly and inef­fi­cient.”

The good news is that some­times the plants sur­vive, and due to their pow­er­ful roots, as hap­pened in Sardinia, many of them can quickly recover, be grafted and go back to pro­duc­tion in a few years,” he added.

However, the cul­tural, eco­nomic and social land­scape of farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties hit by such extreme wild­fires can be dam­aged beyond the means of restora­tion and com­pen­sa­tion mea­sures.

Sometimes a fire brings almost com­plete destruc­tion of the top­soil lay­ers, which means that all the organic mate­r­ial in them is oblit­er­ated or vastly reduced,” Bacchetta said. After that, when the rain comes, it increases the dam­age by wash­ing away both the top sur­face lay­ers and those that sit below them, which brings to a huge loss of fer­til­ity.”

The more slop­ing the ter­rain, he added, the greater the dam­age done.

Since many olive groves in Sardinia and through­out the Mediterranean grow on slopes, the risk for those is even worst,” Bacchetta said.

According to the UNEP/GRID-Arendal report, the world must learn to live with fires.”

Institutions and local com­mu­ni­ties must learn to man­age bet­ter and mit­i­gate the risk wild­fires rep­re­sent for human health, bio­di­ver­sity, liveli­hoods and the global cli­mate.

The report calls for gov­ern­ments to dras­ti­cally change their approach to the prob­lem, define new strate­gies for ecosys­tem restora­tion and spend money on pre­ven­tion instead of com­pen­sa­tion for those affected.



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