Hinterland Green

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Inferno on Earth: Wildfires Spreading as Temperatures Rise (Earth Policy Institute)

"Future firefighters have their work cut out for them.," says Janet Larsen, Director of Research for the Earth Policy Institute, in a recent release, "Inferno on Earth: Wildfires Spreading as Temperatures Rise". "Perhaps nowhere does this hit home harder than in Australia, where in early 2009 a persistent drought, high winds, and record high temperatures set the stage for the worst wildfire in the country's history."

On February 9th, now known as "Black Saturday," the mercury in Melbourne topped 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46.4 degrees Celsius) as fires burned over 1 million acres in the state of Victoria—destroying more than 2,000 homes and killing more than 170 people, tens of thousands of cattle and sheep, and 1 million native animals.

Even as more people move into fire-prone wildlands around the world, the intense droughts and higher temperatures that come with global warming are likely to make fires more frequent and severe in many areas. (See table of regional observations and predictions) For southeastern Australia, home to much of the country's population, climate change could triple the number of extreme fire risk days by 2050.

Although fires typically make the news only when they grow large and put lives or property at risk, on any given day thousands of wildfires burn worldwide. Fire is a natural and important process in many ecosystems, clearing the land and recycling organic matter into the soil. Some 40 percent of the earth's land is covered with fire-prone vegetation. A number of plants—such as giant Sequoia trees and certain prairie grasses—need fire to propagate or to create the right conditions for them to flourish.

Now policies are shifting in many places to let some fires proceed naturally or through preventative controlled burns; yet by warming the planet, we may be relinquishing even more control than we bargained for. Higher average global temperatures mean extremes are in store: even as climate change brings more flooding in some areas, other places will be plagued by droughts and extended heat waves. As the temperature rose between the 1970s and early 2000s, for instance, the share of total global land area experiencing very dry conditions doubled from less than 15 percent to close to 30 percent. A hotter, drier world burns more readily. Global warming could be pushing us into a new regime of larger, longer-burning, more intense fires as well as fires in places that historically have been hard to ignite, like moist tropical forests.

Just as a weakened immune system leaves a person vulnerable to otherwise innocuous germs, the combination of logging, road construction, and intentional burning to clear forests for cattle ranches, farms, and plantations has fragmented the world's tropical forests, increasing their vulnerability to fire. Piling higher temperatures on top of such stresses could completely undermine forests' resilience. For the massive Amazon rainforest, we risk reaching a tipping point where recurrent droughts dry out the landscape enough so that small fires can turn into devastating conflagrations.

For full report visit Earth Policy Institute

Contact Info:
Media & Permissions to Reprint Contact:
Reah Janise Kauffman
Tel: (202) 496-9290 x 12
E-mail: rjk (at) earthpolicy.org

Research Contact:
Janet Larsen
Tel: (202) 496-9290 x 14
E-mail: jlarsen (at) earthpolicy.org

Earth Policy Institute
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 403                
Washington, DC  20036
Web: www.earthpolicy.org

Website : Earth Policy Institute
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