For almost the entire month of August, the Amazon rainforest has been burning. Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has tracked over 74,000 fires in the Amazon this year alone. Environmentalists and politicians alike are calling the situation an “international crisis.”
But it’s not just South America being hit with horrific wildfires this year. Europe has experienced nearly 1,400 wildfires since the start of the calendar year — a substantial increase from the continent's previous annual average of 174. In the United States, 1.2 billion acres of forest burn every year. This year, California — a state prone to wildfires due to its dry, windy climate — is experiencing one of its worst wildfire seasons in state history.
Wildfire Smoke Dramatically Worsens Air Quality
Wildfires continue to pose health, safety, and environmental concerns for the public and effective solutions for keeping the public safe is a must.
Once a wildfire breaks out, high levels of particulate matter present a significant threat to public health. According to the EPA, exposure to high levels of fine particles, which is a major component of smoke, over just a matter of days to weeks is linked to increased premature mortality and aggravation of pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Children, pregnant women and the elderly are all at particularly high risk.
We recorded this video to show the harmful impact of the burning Amazon on air quality as the smoke spread on August 23rd:
Are Wildfires Becoming More Common?
While not conclusive, a significant body of research suggests that the likelihood and impact of wildfires may now be greater as a result of climate change. We examine specific trends regarding the size and frequency of wildfires in more detail below:
1. Wildfires are Getting Larger
Last year, over 3 million acres in the United States had been scorched by fires by mid-July, translating to 4 percent more land damage than the 10-year average rates for the same time of year.
While a variety of factors — including human behaviors, wind levels, vegetation, humidity levels, and more — contribute to the likelihood of wildfires, the impact of climate change is becoming increasingly apparent. A 2016 Columbia University study found that the average temperature in Western forests increased by almost 2.5 degrees since 1970. As a result, some 16,000 more square miles have been burned than would have had temperatures remained constant.
Some scientists argue that the recent headline-grabbing wildfires in California were 500 percent larger due to the detrimental effects of global warming. In California alone, 12 of the 15 largest fires in state history have occurred within the past 15 years, leading experts to believe that notable shifts in environmental conditions have given way to more damaging fires.
While the frequency of wildfires has remained relatively constant in the U.S., the size and impact of individual fires has grown significantly over the last decade. These trends aren’t unique to the U.S., however. In 2017, fires burned nearly three times more than the historic rate of 1,500 square miles in the European Union.
2. Wildfire Seasons Are Getting Longer
In general, fire seasons vary in duration based on location. However, new studies based on 35 years of meteorological data reveal that fire seasons around the globe have become longer than ever before.
Some research indicates the average wildfire season length has increased by nearly 19% between 1978 and 2013. In particular, parts of the western United States, Mexico, Brazil, and East Africa now undergo wildfire seasons that are more than a month longer than they were just 35 years ago.
This trend also holds true for many European countries as well. Research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre reveals that Scandinavia experienced significant growth in the length of their wildfire seasons. In 2016, Sweden witnessed a 41% increase in fire season length while Norway suffered a staggering 288% increase.
Lengthening fire seasons may be due in large part to global warming. As winter snowpacks melt earlier, forests’ dry periods are stretched longer.
3. More Heatwaves Means More Fires
Global warming-driven reductions in vapour pressure have been linked to higher rates of vegetation mortality and drought. As droughts become more common, so too do adjacent heat waves, spelling trouble as research increasingly points to hotter, drier conditions as key contributors to the proliferation of wildfires.
Meteorologists predicted in June that temperatures would climb above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) across large stretches of Europe this year, and they were correct. Great swathes of Eastern Europe experienced heatwaves this summer.
Industry experts say that as the climate changes in response to rising levels of greenhouse gases, heatwaves around the world are likely to increase in frequency, grow hotter, and last longer. Experts anticipate a corresponding spike in the occurrence of wildfires.
So What’s the Verdict?
There is still plenty of debate among scientists about the proliferation of wildfires. Some argue that the rate and severity of wildfires are not growing as quickly as the public believe and that there is not enough quantitative evidence to support such perceived trends while others argue that wildfires are assuredly becoming worse.
The verdict: it’s complicated — there a great number of factors contributing to the fluctuations in frequency, severity, and cause of wildfires across the globe today. As evidenced above, however, climate change plays (and will likely continue to play) a large role in the proliferation of wildfires.
Stay Informed of the Active Fires Around You
As industry leaders in air pollution and big data solutions, BreezoMeter now offers active fire alerts in 90+ countries worldwide via our mobile app to warn users of changes to air quality. See how the fire alerts look below:
These fire alerts are also available as an API for businesses and organizations that are interested in making use of this data.