The fires that have engulfed Europe will make 2022 a record year for forest loss on the continent, as scientists warn that climate change is already contributing to increasingly fierce fires.
Fires in parts of France, Spain and Portugal have already burned more land this year than in all of 2021 – some 517,881 hectares (5,000 km2), or the equivalent area of Trinidad and Tobago.
“The situation is much worse than expected, even though we expected temperature anomalies in our long-term forecasts,” Jesus San Miguel, coordinator of the European Union’s EFFIS satellite monitoring service, told AFP.
San Miguel said things could get worse, adding that the hallmarks of global warming were during this year’s fire season.
“Ignition is man-made (but) the heatwave is critical and clearly linked to climate change,” he said.
“Previously, fire season was concentrated in July through September. Now we get longer seasons and very intense fires. We expect that climate change will lead to higher fire conditions in Europe.”
Temperatures have warmed by just over 1.1 degrees Celsius since the industrial age, and the United Nations says the earth is currently on track to warm by about 2.7 degrees this century.
That extra heat is enough to make the kind of heatwaves that have hit Europe this week more likely and last longer when they do occur.
– Increasing risk of fire –
Almost 40,000 hectares of forest have been lost to fires in France so far this year, according to EFFIS, more than the 30,000 that burned there in 2021.
In Spain – where more than 500 people died this month during a 10-day heatwave – 190,000 hectares have gone up in smoke this year, compared to 85,000 last year.
EFFIS said Europe could end 2022 with more area burned than 2017, currently the worst year on record for wildfires with almost 1,000,000 hectares lost.
Throughout 2021, 470,359 hectares of forest were lost to fires in Europe, mostly in Italy and Greece.
Still, these two countries have had a relatively good year in terms of wildfires: Italy has lost 25,000 hectares compared to more than 150,000 in 2021, and Greece has lost 7,800 compared to 130,000 a year ago.
Temperatures this week topped 40C for the first time on record in the UK, where a relatively large 20,000 hectares have burned since January.
A February study found that the proportion of July and August days with extreme fire danger in the UK would rise from the current 9 per cent to 26 per cent with a 2°C warming.
Mark Parrington, senior scientist at the EU’s Copernicus atmosphere monitoring service, said climate change has already contributed to how long wildfires last when they do break out.
“What is remarkable is how long they burn,” he told the AFP news agency. “It’s not what we usually see in Europe.
Hotter temperatures combined with near-unprecedented drought conditions across much of Europe are helping forests remain bone dry, providing the ideal conditions for wildfires to start and spread.
“There’s a lot of fuel,” Parrington said. “There is a clear upward trend in fire risk in central and southern Europe.”
In addition to damaging ecosystems and removing carbon-absorbing vegetation from land, wildfires themselves contribute to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
Copernicus said this week the June and July fires in Spain and Morocco produced about 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 – the highest since records began in 2003.
The flames are also affecting air quality for the surrounding population. In southwest France, elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide have been detected for days over the city of Bordeaux, north of two major fire zones, and even in Paris, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) northeast.
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