How climate change is increasing wildfires

How climate change is increasing wildfires
How climate change is increasing wildfires

Climate change makes forests more sensitive

According to the latest simulations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the rise in temperatures that has been occurring since the beginning of the pre-industrial era, due to human activities, is expected to reach +2.2°C in metropolitan France by 2050. This rise could be accompanied, during the summers, by an increase in the number of heat waves with 5 to 10 more hot days (days with a temperature greater than or equal to 25°C).

This rise in temperatures has harmful consequences for forests: it promotes evapotranspiration from trees and plants, as well as a reduction in the water contained in the soil. The forest therefore becomes more sensitive to the development of firesbecause the plant becomes drier.

In addition to the impact on temperatures, climate change affects precipitation. By 2050, the IPCC predicts a 10% decrease in summer precipitation, particularly in the southeast, where there could be 5 to 10 additional days of drought, which will increase the risk of fires by making wood more flammable.

The consequences of our changing climate on our forests and the risk of fires are clear: rising temperatures and falling rainfall increase the stock of available fuel. But these are not the only effects.

The period of risk of fires is lengthening, and their surface area is increasing

IPCC experts have shown that the forest areas most sensitive to fire risk, currently located in the south-east, could expand by +30% by 2040. This risk could cover a significant portion of the forests in the southern half, such as the Landes forest, already badly affected in 2022. It could even extend to the forests of Sologne and Vosges by 2060.

This extension of the territories exposed to the risk of fire is progressing towards the north and more northern regions, including in regions not or very little affected until now, such as the Ardennes.

Furthermore, due to an earlier start to the season when fires can occur, and a later end, an extension of the fire risk period is to be expected. At the end of the century, certain areas in the south and south-east could be affected by 1 to 2 additional months at risk.like the Rhone Valley, which is already very affected.

This increase is even more pronounced in the already most vulnerable areas. By the end of the century, the heart of the fire season, i.e. the period during which the risks are highest, could be extended by 2 to 3 weeks. From a current duration of 1 to 2 weeks, this period could reach a month in certain regions by the end of the century, particularly in the south-east.

Greenhouse gases and forest fires: a vicious circle

Wildfires are both a consequence of climate change and a cause. They contribute to releasing large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which in turn will increase temperatures, and thus increase the risk of wildfires. Not to mention the fact that the more fires there are, the less forest there is to sequester carbon, and the more fires there are, the greater the health impacts linked to pollution.

In 2023, scientists from the World Resources Institute and the University of Maryland studied the impact of wildfires in Canada, which severely polluted air globally (link to study). They determined that these fires emitted nearly four times more carbon than airplanes in a year, equivalent to the annual emissions of 647 million cars, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Although the forest will eventually regrow and sequester carbon, this process will take at least decades, so there is a fairly significant lag between the addition of atmospheric carbon due to forest fires and the eventual removal of at least some of this carbon by the regrowing forest. Thus, over these decades, the net impact of the fires is a contribution to global warming.” (quote from lapresse.ca)

Whether in 2023 in Canada, in 2021 in Greece or in 2020 in Australia, the fires have shown their increasing intensity and their devastating health, economic and tourism impacts. Faced with the major challenges posed by fires exacerbated by climate change, the European Commission announced in 2023 a financing plan of 600 million euros to strengthen the aerial fight against these disasters. These measures also highlight the considerable challenges that countries face in anticipating, preventing and managing these increasingly frequent and intense natural disasters.

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