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While the majority of fires throughout the history of the US have been started by careless human actions, they have in recent years become more ferocious because of the climate crisis. In fact, rising temperatures are making them more intense, frequent, and destructive. Here are 15 of the largest wildfires in US history.

1. The 2021 Dixie Fire, California

Following an unprecedented heat wave in June 2021, California was once again engulfed in raging wildfires. According to CalFire, the fire has burned more than 463,000 acres in Northern California, taking hundreds of buildings down with it and threatening nearly 14,000 structures. Experts have warned that the Dixie Fire’s dramatic growth and size are fuelled by severe drought conditions and global temperature increase. The Dixie Fire of 2021 was named the second-largest fire in California history.

2. The 2020 Bay Area Fire, California

Starting in the Bay Area, the Bay Area fire was one of the largest wildfire in US history and tore through parts of California, Oregon and Washington state. By September 15, they burned almost one million acres of land and killed at least 35 people. At one point, every 24 hours, an area the size of Washington DC was being burned. The North Complex fire alone was responsible for more than 300 000 acres of scorched land, killing 16 people in its wake. Five of the six largest blazes in the state were recorded in 2020. Meanwhile, Stanford researchers estimate that the smoke and resulting poor air quality eventually led to hundreds of excess deaths in California cities and across the west coast in Washington and Oregon.

worst wildfires in history

This wildfire map uses near and shortwave infrared data collected between July 24 and September 26th, 2020, to track changes in the landscape’s green spaces. The bar at the bottom measures the severity of the burns from the deadliest wildfire in US history (Source: Earth.Org). 

3. The 2018 Camp Fire, California

The Camp Fire was reported on November 8 2018 in Butte County. The fire grew rapidly and became the deadliest and largest fire in California history. It burned 153 336 acres, destroyed nearly 19 000 homes and killed at least 85 people. While it was contained on November 25, search and rescue efforts continued into December.

4. The 2017 Tubbs Fire, California

The Tubbs Fire started in October 2017 in Northern California and was one of more than 200 fires that hit the state that year. The wildfire burned more than 36 800 acres across Sonoma and Napa counties. The fire killed 22 people and destroyed thousands of homes; the city of Santa Rosa lost 5% of its housing stock.

You might also like: What Causes California Wildfires?

5. The 2013 Yarnell Fire, Arizona

The Yarnell Hill Fire started on June 28, 2013 in Yarnell Arizona. The wildfire is believed to have been started by a lightning strike and it burned more than 8 000 acres of land. The fire killed 19 firefighters, making it the deadliest and largest wildfire in Arizona history. 

6. 2004 Alaska Fire Season

The 2004 fire season in Alaska was the worst on record in terms of area burned by wildfires in the history of the US state of Alaska. More than 6.6 million acres of land were burned by 701 fires. 215 of these were started by lighting strikes; the other 426 were started by humans. The summer of 2004 was extremely warm and wet in comparison to typical interior Alaska summer climate, which resulted in record amounts of lighting strikes. After months of this lighting and increased temperatures, an uncharacteristically dry August resulted in the fires that continued through September. 

7. The 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, California

This famous wildfire started on the hills of Oakland, California on October 19 1991. It started as a wind-driven brush fire, but turned into a firestorm that tore through residential neighbourhoods and charred 3000 homes and apartment buildings. In just two days, the fire spread across 1 520 acres of land. 25 people were killed and at least 150 more were injured. 

8. The 1988 Yellowstone Fires

These fires collectively formed the largest wildfire in the recorded history of the Yellowstone National Park in the US. Spurred by drought conditions and winds, the fire quickly spread out of control and turned into one large fire that burned for several months. Only cool, moist autumnal weather extinguished the fires. A total of 793 880 acres, or 36% of the park, were affected by the fires. More than 9 00 firefighters fought the fires at its peak and at one point, more than 4 000 US military personnel were brought in to assist. 

9. The 1918 Cloquet Fire

On October 12, 1918, sparks from a railroad led to a wildfire in Carlton County, Minnesota because of extremely dry conditions. More than 250 000 acres of land was burned and at least 550 died, while a further 12 000 were injured or displaced. 

10. The Great Fire of 1910, Connecticut

Also called the Big Burn, Big Blowup or the Devil’s Broom fire, this wildfire roared through the states of Idaho and Montana during the summer of 1910. The fire burned for just two days, but strong winds caused the initial fire to combine with other smaller fires to form one massive blaze that destroyed 3 million acres and killed 85 people, making this one of the worst wildfires in Us history. 

You might also like: The Impact of Wildfires on Biodiversity and the Environment

11. The 1902 Yacolt Burn

This is the collective name for dozens of fires in Washington state and Oregon that occurred between September 8 and September 12 1902. They collectively caused 65 deaths and burned through 500 000 acres. In addition to careless human action, the summer of 1902 had been drier than usual and there was a build up of slash left from loggers that had not been burned off properly in the preceding two summers which acted as fodder for the fires. 

12. The 1871 Great Michigan Fire

In October 1871, the Great Michigan Fire started out as a series of smaller fires that merged. The fire ravaged the towns of Holland, Port Huron and Manistee, as well as the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The fire is estimated to have burned at least 3 900 square miles in Michigan and killed around 500 people.

13. The 1871 Peshtigo Fire, Wisconsin

The blaze started on October 8 1871 and burned around 1.2 million acres. At least 1 152 people were killed, making this the worst fire that claimed more lives than any of the other wildfires in US history. It happened on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, which overshadowed the Wisconsin fire. 

14. The 1884 Great Hinckley Fire

In September 1884, the Great Hinckley Fire broke out near the town of Hinckley, Minnesota. At that time, trees were commonly stripped of their branches before cutting them down for lumber, but that left pine forests filled with dry, dead branches. This fuelled the fire and caused it to burn 250 000 acres in just four hours. Officially, 418 people were killed but historians believe that hundreds of Native Americans were killed and were left out of the fatality count.

15. The 1881 Thumb Fire, Michigan

One of the largest wildfires in US history started on September 5 1881 in the Thumb region of eastern Michigan. The fire is thought to have been exacerbated by dry summer conditions and drought. Burning around 1 million acres, it spread from Lapeer County to Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac and Lapeer counties. At least 282 people were killed. The flames produced so much soot and ash that the sun was partially obscured in the East Coast, turning the sky a yellowish colour.

These are just some of the worst wildfires in US history; there are many more that have caused extensive damage to communities and landscapes. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires around the world, but especially in the US and will continue to do so until the causes of climate change- including burning fossil fuels- are addressed urgently. No state can afford to deal with the carnage of these crazy fires every year, making curbing climate change absolutely vital

Featured image by: EO Photographer Justin Sullivan

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: Top 12 Largest Wildfires in History

This year’s California wildfire season has spawned another grim milestone- the first ‘gigafire’- a fire spanning 1 million acres- in modern history. Have we reached a tipping point? 

The complex fire in northern California that started in August spread beyond 1 million acres this week, moving it from a ‘megafire’- which describes a fire that is more than 100 000 acres in size- to a new classification, ‘gigafire’, which has never been used to describe fires before. It is now the biggest fire in the state’s history.

At the time of publication, the fire is currently at 1.03 million acres, caused by an amalgamation of several fires caused when lightning struck dry forests. 

The fire has been burning for at least 50 days and has been a little more than half-contained. 

Overall, the fires have burned through 4 million acres of California this year, double the previous annual record. 

Unfortunately, this dry landscape caused by the fires make larger fires more likely. Big wildfires are now three times more common across to the west of the US than in the 1970s, while the wildfire season is now three months longer, according to Climate Central

While parts of the state are expected to see temperatures fall with some light to moderate showers, climate scientists warn that it likely won’t be a season-ending storm. 

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Where Have We Seen The Gigafire Before?

The most recent gigafire in the US was the Taylor Complex in Alaska, which burned about 1.3 million acres in 2004. Another gigafire was seen in Australia, when two fires on the border between Victoria and New South Wales combined to burn about 1.5 million acres. 

Anthropogenic climate change is creating conditions conducive to deadlier and more destructive wildfires through higher temperatures and drier vegetation.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

A report warns that the atmosphere above the Amazon rainforest has become increasingly dry over the past two decades due to human activities and is at risk of drying out completely. This could increase the rainforest’s demand for water and make it more vulnerable to droughts and fires. 

The study, published in the journal, Science, observed an increasing trend in a measure called Vapour Pressure Deficit (VPD) over tropical South America in dry season months. VPD is a combined function of air temperature and relative humidity and is a critical variable in determining plant photosynthesis. Higher VPD values indicate a decline in atmospheric moisture. This implies that the Amazon is likely to increasingly struggle to sustain its water demands, triggering more widespread and severe droughts. As a result, wildfire risk and tree mortality will increase, causing a significant loss of carbon over the Amazon basin

This has already been seen with previous droughts. After the 2005 megadrought, where more than 70 million hectares of pristine forests in southwestern Amazonia were affected, the most negative annual carbon balance ever was recorded in the region. This decrease can be attributed to extensive and severe damage to the forest canopy that was detectable by satellite. The older, larger, more vulnerable canopy trees were especially susceptible to dieback and tree falls. Even when rainfall levels recovered in the following years, about half of the forest affected by the 2005 megadrought – an area the size of California – did not recover by the time the next major drought began in 2010.

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Furthermore, during the 2015 Amazonia drought, the highest VPD since 1979 was recorded. Similar values that are well beyond the scope of natural variability have been observed across the last decades, insinuating a human influence. The researchers suggest that elevated levels of greenhouse gases account for approximately half of the increase in atmospheric dryness. Other influencing factors are unclear, but burning of rainforest biomass for agriculture that causes widespread land-cover change, is thought to be another predominant cause. Satellite data taken in 2018 revealed that an area of Amazon rainforest roughly the size of a football pitch is now being cleared every single minute. 

Dr Armineh Barkhordarian from the University of California and lead author of the study said, “We observed that in the last two decades, there has been a significant increase in dryness in the atmosphere as well as in the atmospheric demand for water above the rainforest. In comparing this trend to data from models that estimate climate variability over thousands of years, we determined that the change in atmospheric aridity is well beyond what would be expected from natural climate variability.”

Higher VPD levels are concerning as the Amazon rainforest- commonly coined ‘the lungs of the Earth’- is critical in regulating the global climate. The multitude of flora found in tropical forests enable them to extract half of the atmospheric carbon dioxide via photosynthesis – thus helping to reduce levels of this greenhouse gas and help mitigate global warming. 

In addition, the Amazon basin plays an important role by regulating rainfall in the region. It cycles water between the forest and the atmosphere via rainfall and transpiration of leaves, leading to a freshwater ocean in South America – the rivers and groundwater – that maintains rainfall in the southern agricultural regions of the continent. However, the Amazon rainforest is extremely vulnerable to increases in atmospheric drying and warming, as they are thought to produce up to 80% of their own rainfall. A decrease in atmospheric moisture, combined with an increase in global temperatures, decreases the ability of the Amazon to regulate its rainfall, thus increasing the vulnerability of major Brazilian cities to water shortages

Will the Amazon rainforest survive?

The dire potential situation has highlighted the need for a greater focus on halting deforestation in the Amazon basin, in conjunction with decreasing emissions of greenhouse gases. Both will help decrease VPD and hence reduce the potential risk of droughts and the associated threat of wildfires and tree mortality. It has never been more critical to address this drying out issue because if the Amazon forest is lost, the crucial ecosystem services it provides will also be lost.

Featured image by: Anna & Michal

Over the past few days, destructive fires have swept large portions of the Tsavo National Park in Kenya, threatening wildlife and compromising vegetation. On August 11, they were finally extinguished, but what is the extent of the destruction they leave behind?

It has been suspected that the recent fire that occurred over the weekend of August 8 was ignited by arsonists, according to a press release by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). The police are currently tracking down the suspects and are continuously updating KWS on the investigation as it unfolds. In the meantime, the KWS worked with the government, conservation partners and the community to extinguish the fires. 

The government deployed the military to support firefighters who are battling to put out the fires, using helicopters to pour water across the area. Hundreds of local volunteers have also assisted with the mission.  

KWS have advised the public to avoid lighting fires close to national parks and reserves in order to prevent further wildfires.  

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Tsavo, located in south-eastern Kenya, is the country’s largest national reserve, home to many animals such as lions, elephants, rhinos, hippos and buffaloes, all of which are threatened by the fires. The park covers an area of 21 000 square kilometres, and is split into Tsavo East and Tsavo West. 

Prior to COVID-19, the national park welcomed thousands of local and international tourists every year, making it a major tourist attraction and a source of national pride. 

In addition to arsonists, the fires are thought to have occurred due to dry weather conditions which have persisted for weeks on end. A conservation group called the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust previously explained that ‘the combination of long rains earlier in the year, which saw grasses grow tall, strong winds and inaccessible areas have made this a high fire risk period in Tsavo’. 

On June 18 2019, the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency. The following day, the same government approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, capable of transporting close to 600 000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the port of Burnaby in British Columbia. This is an example of how Canada is a climate hypocrite, where the government claims to prioritise the environment but its actions have the opposite effect, choosing to instead prop up fossil fuels.

Canada, which is in close proximity to Antarctica and is partly located within the Arctic Circle, is extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Declaring a state of climate emergency was a necessary response from the Canadian government in tackling the climate crisis. 

This year, a prolonged heatwave in the Arctic that caused temperatures to soar to 38℃ in parts of Siberia, also caused wildfires to rage through parts of Siberia, as well as Canada, Alaska and Greenland. In June, fires in the region emitted 16.3 million tons of carbon- or about 60 million tons of carbon dioxide, the highest levels since 2003 and almost nine times more than the same month in 2018. Since the polar regions are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world, this puts Canada further at risk.

However, the approval of projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline completely contradict the nation’s goal of reaching zero-net carbon emissions by 2050. A statement issued by the Canadian government outlined that the profits generated from the Trans Mountain pipeline will aid renewable energy projects and support cleantech research within the country, prompting critics to accuse the government of hypocrisy as the pipeline would be emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming. 

Controversy: Canada’s Prime Minister 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won his second election by forging solidarity with environmentalists and climate activists, saying that he shares the same view in needing to act in favour of the climate and strive for a greener society. Interestingly, in 2017, Trudeau spoke to Texan oilmen, saying that “no country would find 173 million barrels of oil in the ground and leave it there.” This would mean that Canada, home to 0.5% of the planet’s population, would plan to use nearly a third of the planet’s remaining carbon budget through intensive use of fossil fuels. While it is very possible to change stances on the issue of the climate crisis when confronted with indisputable evidence, in February this year, it emerged that the government was likely to approve the Teck mine, 181 sq km of petroleum mining, located just 25km from a national park. Canadian authorities were aware of the potential environmental harm it would cause, but ruled that it was nonetheless in the ‘public interest’. Thankfully, the mining giant withdrew its plans later that month, but it sealed Canada’s fate as a climate hypocrite. 

You might also like: Australia’s Plan to Tackle The Climate Crisis Could Create Nearly 80 000 Jobs

Expected Projects 

Despite many delays, three major pipeline projects are expected to enter service by the end of 2023- namely, TC Energy Corporation’s Keystone XL, Enbridge’s expansion of its Line 3 and the Canadian government’s expansion of the Trans Mountain line.

The three pipelines have already encountered challenges; the Line 3 project continuously faces opposition in Minnesota, where it hopes to expand to, while the Keystone XL project is tackling legal challenges and the Trans Mountain remains disputed by indigenous and aboriginal communities in British Columbia.

Environmental risks of such projects range from water contamination to wildlife habitat disturbances. Provinces and cities have voiced opposition to such projects. Vancouver filed an empirical report on how the Trans Mountain project is ‘not worth the risk’ because ‘tanker traffic spills would be devastating to the coastline’ and in British Columbia, the controversial Bill C-48 issues a suspension on oil tankers carrying large quantities of crude oil along the northern coast to protect the ecosystem. 

New pipelines breach demand levels required under the Paris Agreement. Canada has struggled to establish their natural resources development plans in shifting towards a greener society and divesting from fossil fuels. The Canadian government’s support for proposed pipelines and pipeline extension projects risk the country’s reputation of being one of the few who have shown strong leadership in addressing the climate crisis. 

Carbon Tracker, an independent financial think tank that assesses climate risk, conducted an analysis on the impact of Canada’s pipelines, and found that new oil sands are unnecessary in a low carbon world. The analysis showed that additional pipeline capacity significantly exceeds supply levels across two low carbon demand scenarios, meaning that large portions will end up wasted or underutilised, resulting in stranded assets. Even in the case where new pipelines have lower crude transportation costs and reduce pricing, for example, the entirety of Canada’s unsanctioned oil sands projects would still not comply with a Paris-aligned world of weaker oil demand. 

All proposed new pipelines from Western Canada, primarily Keystone XL and Trans Mountain expansion, do not comply with a Paris-compliant world, the report stated. Under the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), for instance, all future oil supplies from Western Canada can be accommodated by alterations and replacements made to already existing pipelines- demonstrating there is no need to build new pipelines. Even if greater pipeline capacity is reduced due to quality and transport challenges, and comply with the requirements of a greener society, new projects will remain uneconomic under the SDS, and therefore the appropriateness of such pipeline projects should be reconsidered. 

The analysts highlighted that the scenarios used in the report still fall short of the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 1.5˚C. The analysis showed that the first scenario, the SDS limits warming to 1.7-1.8˚C and the second scenario, Beyond 2 Degrees Scenario (B2D2), to 1.6˚C. 

Economic Viability of Oil Projects

The report stated that ‘investors in oil sands face depressed cash flows in a low carbon world of falling oil demand and weak pricing, but will be forced to produce or pay the price due to inflexible “take-or-pay” transport fees for excess new pipeline capacity’. 

Furthermore, the Canadian government’s stakes in Keystone XL and Trans Mountain could rely on public tax money, which would be far better spent on environmentally friendly and sustainable projects. 

Canada’s leadership position on the climate crisis may be subverted by its support for projects reliant on the failure of the Paris Agreement, indicating that the country’s aspiration of complying with the Paris-aligned world is doubtful. 

Evidently, there remains a divide between environmental motivation and monetary incentives- such that people tend to perceive the two as mutually exclusive. However, if a global, widespread effort is made towards shifting to a greener economy, then the two will inevitably go hand-in-hand. Without this shift, a limbo between wanting to mitigate the climate crisis and wanting to ensure financial stability will continue to prevail. Because of how vulnerable it is to global warming, it is certainly in Canada ’s best interest to divest from use of fossil fuels and instead invest in projects that will green the economy while ensuring profitability. 

Featured image by: kris krüg

A prolonged heatwave in the Arctic that caused temperatures to soar to 38℃ in parts of Siberia, is causing wildfires to rage through parts of Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada. In June, fires in the region emitted 16.3 million tons of carbon- or about 60 million tons of carbon dioxide, the highest levels since 2003 and almost nine times more than the same month in 2018. Earth.Org has compiled satellite images capturing the fires. 

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. With the rise in temperature and heat comes increased dryness, causing the soil and permafrost to lose their moisture. This extreme dryness, combined with the rise in temperature, creates an optimum environment for wildfires to flourish. Dried peat is of particular concern as the large amounts of stored carbon allow it to burn rapidly and efficiently. 

The region is considered a tundra biome: a cold, dry desert with sparse vegetation apart from shrubs and mosses. Underground, permafrost resides, which significantly slows down the rate of peat decomposition, storing carbon as a result. When it thaws however, methane is released, making the conservation of peatlands vital.

Arctic Heatwave

Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service shows that the fire activity has been further to the east in the Siberian Arctic than in 2019, with more widespread fires in the non-Arctic parts of eastern Siberia. Mark Parrington, CAMS senior scientist, says, “It is very surprising how similar the daily trend in the fire activity has been compared to 2019, especially as it is so unusual to all the other years of data that we have.”

Throughout the heatwave, some parts of the Arctic registered temperatures as much as 16℃ higher than usual in May.

The fire season typically starts in early May and picks up at the beginning of June, but it started earlier this year, with satellites registering wildfires as soon as March. Fires generally burn through forests and peatlands in Siberia. The dry vegetation on these plains can burn under the snowpack of winter and satellite data suggested that high temperatures were reigniting these ‘zombie fires’. The warm air spreading from Siberia across the Arctic doesn’t directly cause fires, but together with low soil moisture levels and low precipitation, it can contribute to conditions conducive for fires to spread. 

The summer of 2019 endured record-breaking levels of smoke and smog throughout the Arctic tundra and surrounding forests. In just two months, it was estimated that approximately 100 intense wildfires spanned Alaska, Siberia, Canada and Greenland, with some reported to be ‘as big as 100 000 football fields’. In Siberia alone, the wildfires burned for 3 months and consumed over 4 million hectares of forest. 

As the areas within and surrounding the Arctic Circle tend to be remote, fires can burn indefinitely, jeopardising carbon stores and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that have knock-on effects on the rest of the world

“Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, but what we’re seeing is an accelerated fire cycle: we are getting more frequent and severe fires and larger burned areas,” said Liz Holy, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland.

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arctic wildfires
Fire occurrence in North-Eastern Russia between the 7th of June and 7th of July, from 2017 to 2020. Retrieved using the NASA FIRMS fire detection system.

Siberia

This summer, the fires have already burned through 333 000 hectares of land, according to Greenpeace. On June 20, the meteorological service of Russia recorded a peak of 38 in Verkhoyansk, the highest recorded temperature since records began in the late nineteenth century. Siberia is renowned for having a wildly fluctuating climate, holding the world record for temperatures ranging from -68 to 37

Climate scientists have stressed how ‘alarm bells should already be ringing’- especially in response to the catastrophic effects the Arctic wildfires will have on amplifying the rate of global warming

Another component essential for the unprecedented levels of wildfires in the Arctic is the number of storms prevalent. Between the years 2012 and 2018, a total of only 3 lightning strikes were recorded in regions close to the Arctic Ocean. However in 2019, a two-day period produced approximately 48 lightning strikes. The combination of lightning and dried earth propagates the energy and fuel required to start fires.

Moreover, the soot produced by the Arctic’s wildfires can be detrimental to humans and animals alike, inducing fatal chronic health conditions such as asthma attacks and strokes. The soot also contributes to the rising temperatures of the Arctic by settling on layers of ice and decreasing the albedo value of such surfaces- resulting in an increase in heat absorption and a decrease in light reflection, and therefore reinforcing the Arctic warming cycle.

Estimates from 2019

According to an article published by Harvard University, one peat fire can produce approximately 80 tons of carbon per acre, the equivalent of ‘the annual emissions of around 20 cars’. Estimates  suggest that the Arctic wildfires in 2019 produced a total of approximately 140 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions- the equivalent to ‘the annual emissions of over 20 million cars’. 

Though predictions are not always accurate, and have previously underestimated the fires which occurred last year, they do help researchers understand what is yet to come. Satellite images assist to monitor the fires by allowing experts to analyse characteristic smoke patterns and to measure heat output

In addition to reducing human activities that dehydrate the Arctic fringes, researchers suggest ‘actively re-wetting the peatlands and removing plants that could fuel a fire and replacing them with mosses that can keep the ground wet’. Though this method has not been tested on a large scale, such innovation demonstrates that attempts of combating and mitigating the Arctic wildfire problem is hopefully underway.


Featured image by: Western Arctic National Parklands

Siberia is experiencing a prolonged heatwave, with unusually high temperatures linked to wildfires, a huge oil spill and a plague of tree-eating moths. Climate scientists have said this heatwave is ‘undoubtedly alarming’ and will push the world towards its hottest year on record. 

Russian towns in the Arctic circle have recorded extraordinarily high temperatures, with Nizhnyaya Pesha hitting 30℃ on June 9 and Khatanga, which usually has temperatures of around 0℃ this time of year, hitting 25℃ on May 22. The highest temperature recorded previously was 12℃. 

Throughout May, temperatures in parts of Siberia were up to 10C above average, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). The Danish Meteorological Institute said that these abnormal temperatures seen in north-west Siberia would be likely to happen once in 100 000 years without anthropogenic climate change.

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Freja Vamborg, a senior scientist at C3S, says, “Although the planet as a whole is warming, this isn’t happening evenly. Western Siberia stands out as a region that shows more of a warming trend with higher variations in temperature. So to some extent large temperature anomalies are not unexpected. However, what is unusual is how long the warmer-than-average anomalies have persisted for.”

Temperatures in the polar regions are increasing fastest because ocean currents carry heat towards the poles, melting reflective ice and snow rapidly.

From January to May, Russia experienced record high temperatures in 2020, with the average temperature 5.3℃ above the 1951-1980 average. 

Russian president, Vladimir Putin, commented on the heat, saying that some cities in Russia were built north of the Arctic circle on permafrost.

Causes of the Siberia Heatwave

Thawing permafrost is partly to blame for an oil spill in Siberia this month that prompted a national emergency being declared by the government. According to its operators, the supports of the storage tank suddenly sank, while green groups have also blamed poorly maintained infrastructure.

Wildfires have also torn through Siberia’s forests, ravaging hundreds of thousands of hectares. Fires are often started in the spring to clear vegetation, however high temperatures and strong winds associated with the heatwave in Siberia caused some fires to burn out of control.

Additionally, swarms of the Siberian silk moth, whose larvae eat conifer trees, have grown rapidly in warming temperatures. These larvae strip the trees of their needles and make them more susceptible to fires.

The planet is set to record its hottest year on record in 2020, despite a temporary dip in carbon emissions due to lockdown measures from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Featured image by: Gael Varoquaux

Wildfires have been ravaging California in fall 2019, as thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Strong winds are causing the fire to spread quickly throughout the state, and firefighters are working to quell the burning flames in locations such as Los Angeles, Riverside County, and Sonoma County. These wildfires in California are increasing pro-climate political participation.

The state of California is engulfed in both fire and terror, and experts say that these fires are only set to get worse as climate change makes the environment hotter and drier. Anthropogenic causes of climate change are making wildfires more common in California, a trend that is primed to persist. 

In a study published in September 2019 by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of California Santa Barbara, suggest that the widespread havoc generated by out of control wildfires are forcing citizens to embrace costly, pro-climate political measures proposed by the state government. 

It found people living within 5, 10, or 15km radius of a recent wildfire to be 4-6 % more likely to vote for pro-climate policy reforms. 

The findings come at a time of heightened political tension in Washington and, contextually, a hostile climate for green policy reforms. The study claims a “temporal mismatch between short-term climate policy costs and long-term climate policy benefits.” Citizens are reluctant to invest in costly climate policy initiatives despite the fact that climate change has already disrupted economic, social, and environmental conditions globally. 

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Satellite imagery shows the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, California

Billions of dollars of funding have been spent to fight wildfires as well as rebuilding the homes and livelihoods that went up in smoke. Yet, it has been a difficult and slow process for costly climate mitigation bills, such as Congress’ Disaster Relief Bill, to be approved and passed. 

Despite the causal link the study exposed, between disaster and a hardening demand for muscular policy interventions, the shortcoming of this poll relies mainly in that it was conducted in dominant Democratic constituencies, with liberal voters being generally more prone to prioritise climate initiatives. Republican-leaning constituencies, which polls show to be less concerned by the climate crisis, were not as willing to champion these policy initiatives despite having similar experiences with wildfires. 

As the report states, “some parts of the public will respond by increasing their personal and political commitment to climate risk mitigation. However, this shift may remain much smaller in areas where pre-existing climate beliefs are weak, making costly policy change less likely.”

Ultimately, voting behaviour will determine the true extent of the public’s commitment to radical policy shifts. Meanwhile, the ongoing fire-crisis in California and its inevitable economic consequences, are expected to keep pushing people towards rethinking how their money gets spent on mitigation and prevention measures. 

Featured image by Daria Devyatkina

Deforestation rates in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, hit the highest level last month since the current monitoring system began in 2015. 

The Amazon Rainforest Fire

The raging wildfires that have been consuming vast tracts of woodlands in the Amazon rainforest raised unprecedented concerns among political leaders and environmentally conscious citizens worldwide. But the wildfires are not the only threats faced by the Amazon, which covers 5.5 million sq km of land over nine countries in South America. 

The world’s largest tropical rainforest has been under serious threats from extensive deforestation due to farming and cattle ranching, illegal mining, and illegal logging for decades. 

Over 750,000 sq km of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana since 1978.  One of the biggest drivers of such large-scale deforestation is cattle ranching. Low input cost and easy transportation in rural areas make cattle ranching an attractive economic activity in the forest frontier.  Brazil, which holds 60% of the Amazon, is now the world’s largest beef exporter, and in 2018 alone, these exports generated $6.7 billion for the country’s economy. The ranching accounts for over 80% of current deforestation rates in the Amazon.

Extensive soy cultivation is another activity that has been driving deforestation. Brazil — the second-largest producer of soybeans in the world — has cleared hectors of forest land to accommodate new cultivation. Rampant illegal logging is also causing degradation of the forest, which hosts abundant timber resources like Mahogany, Spanish cedar, and other members of the Meliaceae family.

An epidemic of illegal mining has also been threatening indigenous territories of the Amazon for decades. The Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG)– a consortium of civil society organisations in South America — revealed that there were as many as 2,312 illegal mining sites in 245 areas inside the forest across six countries. Illegal miners have established sophisticated infrastructure uprooting millions of trees and contaminating rivers with mercury as they dredge for gold and extract diamonds and coltan.  A study by researchers from the University of Puerto Rico found that approximately 415,000 acres of tropical forest have been lost to gold mining.

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NASA’s ECOSTRESS — a radiometer mounted on the International Space Station — captured a snapshot of fires burning in the Bolivian Amazon on August 23, 2019.

A bleak future?

The ongoing deforestation and this year’s fire have already done unprecedented damage to the Amazon. Climate change and increase in greenhouse gas emissions may also take a heavy toll on the rainforest, which is home to half the world’s species of plants and animals.   We recently published a study that examined the Amazon forest’s response to carbon dioxide fertilisation. Our results suggested that the resilience of the region to climate change may be much less than previously assumed. 

Restoring degraded parts of the forest might not be very easy. Our study showed that limited phosphorous availability in the tropical forest is negatively affecting its CO2 fertilisation abilities, therefore, causing the slowest growth of plant species than previously understood. The fire and deforestation may release the remaining phosphate into the atmosphere further worsening the situation. 

Another study suggested that climate change and extreme weather conditions may trigger a feedback loop accelerating dieback in the Amazon. A prolonged dry season and increased temperature in the region may cause a new drought. Since the Amazon recycles its rainwater, the reduced evapotranspiration may intensify the drought eventually leading to a tipping point after which forest would start to dieback faster and turn into a Savannah ecosystem.

A record number of wildfires in the Amazon are consuming the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Thousands of wildfires are ravaging the Amazon rainforest razing woodlands the size of one and a half football fields every minute of every day. The blazes are so large that plumes of smoke are visible even from space, and have wafted thousands of miles to the Atlantic Coast plunging Brazil’s largest city São Paulo into darkness in the middle of the day.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reports that as many as 39,194 fires have been detected in the rainforest so far this year — a 77% increase from the same period in 2018.

Burning the lungs of the planet

The Amazon is the largest, most diverse tropical rainforest on Earth, covering an area of 5.5 million sq km. It accounts for more than half of the world’s remaining rainforests and is home to more than half the world’s species of plants and animals. It absorbs around 2.2 bn tons of carbon dioxide annually and produces about 20% of the planet’s total oxygen.   

But over the last 40 years, it has been increasingly threatened by deforestation and man-made wildfires. This year, the Amazon saw a sharp rise in deforestation with 1345 sq km of the forest — twice the area of Tokyo — being cleared out after Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro allegedly permitted illegal land invasion, logging, and burning.

The deforestation is directly linked to fires in the Amazon as farmers set the forest ablaze to make room for livestock pastures and crop fields while these purposeful burns get out of control.

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NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of fires burning in the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, and Mato Grosso Brazil.

Causes of Amazon Forest Fire

Environmental organisations and conservationists say the new forest fires were caused by cattle ranchers and loggers who want to clear and utilise the land for agriculture and industries. Brazilian newspapers report that farmers in some regions were organising ‘fire days’ to take advantage of weaker enforcement by the authorities. The blazes have spread rapidly across the forest due to the Amazonian dry season which runs from July to October. 

The fires are now causing devastating loss of Amazonian vegetation, which will reduce rain across South America and other regions of the world. The blazes have been releasing an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 228 megatons so far this year; the highest since 2010. They are also emitting carbon monoxide, which is being carried beyond South America’s coastlines by the heavy wind.

A world engulfed in flames

Brazil has had more than 72,000 fires this year, an 84% increase on the same period in 2018 and more than half of these wildfires were in the Amazon.

But Brazil is not the only country that is currently battling wildfires. At least 54 large blazes have been actively burning across the United States for the last two months. More than 33,000 sq km of forest have gone up in flames in Siberia this month, putting Russia on track for its worst year on record for wildfires. Earlier this week, a wildfire in the Canary Islands, Spain, caused more than 8,000 people to flee while Alaska witnessed an unusually long fire season with multiple wildfires. Denmark had to send firefighters to Greenland, which recorded the highest temperatures in many decades, to tackle wildfires that were approaching human settlements.

July was the 415th consecutive month where temperatures beat the average for all months from 1900 to 1999, an indisputable sign of a warming climate. Global warming has helped wildfires erupted during the dry season to grow bigger across the word. It has also increased the likelihood and frequency of wildfires worldwide. As climate change continues to roll along, the world needs to expect more impending disasters.  

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