Updated: Jan 11
Apart from the bushfire crisis in Australia that remains the main focus of the global community, 2019 was the year wildfires ravaged areas of France, Greece, Indonesia, California, Lebanon and Russian Siberia to name just a few. Data from the Sentinel-3 World Fire Atlas shows that there were five times more wildfires in August 2019 in comparison with the previous year. These data do not include Australian bushfires that started later.
Forests play an important role in absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, so when wildfires happen it accelerates climate change by releasing carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, back into the atmosphere. The bushfires also produce “black carbon” which is harmful for humans and animals since it can enter the lungs and bloodstream. Black carbon also known to settle on the Arctic ice and absorb sunlight, exacerbating global warming further.
Considering the number of bushfires that happened all over the world in 2019 and their magnitude it seems we are in a serious trouble.
June and July 2019 were months when Arctic Circle - Siberia, Alaska and even Greenland - have experienced more than a hundred long-lived and intense wildfires that were caused by a period of unusually hot weather and resulting dry conditions. In Siberia alone over 7 million hectares of taiga forest were destroyed during only two months of fires, while total 2019 loss was at 13 million hectares. Russian environmental scientists already expressed their fears that vegetation restoration will take no less than 60 years, and in some instances up to 100 years.
NASA reports that due to a large number of Arctic fires burning through peatlands, there have been high amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere which accelerates further the global warming and climate change and might result in more extreme and uncontrollable fires in the future. In total, Arctic fires emitted 50 megatons CO2 in June (an equivalent to Sweden’s total annual emissions) and 79 megatons CO2 in July, far exceeding the previous record for the Arctic region. Scientists believe that carbon emissions from these bushfires could exacerbate global warming for decades to come.
What Lebanon experienced in October 2019 were the worst wildfires it has seen in decades. Same as in the Arctic, Lebanon fires started due to the strong winds and high, above average temperatures that were untypical for the season. The fires started to burn in the dense forest and mountains but found their way to the residential areas resulting in properties loss and death. Loosing to the bushfires 2019 thousands of hectares Lebanon doubled its yearly average for the vegetation loss, which as local scientists warn, is catastrophic to the national biodiversity.
According to California Department of Forestry and Fire, during the whole year of 2019 bushfires destroyed nearly 55000 hectares of land. Last year fires prompted mass evacuation of thousands of people and statewide emergency. Officials reported that fires were spread quickly because of the “historic” wind events with winds reaching up to 100mph.
Experts link Californian bushfires with the climate change reporting that the fire season in the state and across the west part of the country now starts earlier and ends later each year., it also dries out large tracts of forests making them more fire-prone.
Summer 2019 will be remembered in many parts of Europe including the Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain by the record high temperatures. In the south of France strong winds and dry hot conditions resulted in the property and land loss. French town near the Mediterranean sea set an all-time record reaching nearly 46 degrees Celsius. French fires ravaged nearly 1,000 hectares of land and forced 2,500 holidaymakers from nearby campsites to be evacuated to safer areas.
Compared to 2018 Greece has faced double the number of wildfires in 2019. Last year fires have been raging in pine forests at the second largest Greek island of Evia where hundreds of people were evacuated and hundreds of firefighters were deployed. As a result of fires, smoke blanketed Athens located 100 km away. Hot weather approaching 40 degrees Celsius and strong winds set on fire other areas in Greece including the island of Thassos and the central region of Viotia and the Peloponnese. Greek bushfires 2019 were named by the country’s governmental officials a “huge ecological disaster”.
Nearly 900,000 hectares of land were burnt during 2019 bushfires in Indonesia. This number well exceeds the damage caused by fires in the previous year. The bushfires in Indonesia are believed to be the direct consequences of slash-and-burn methods to clear forests for palm oil plantations with palm oil being used in a broad range of consumer products such as chocolate and even shampoo. The fires spread toxic haze not only above Indonesia, but also in Singapore and Malaysia. Apart from releasing carbon emissions, Indonesian bushfires also killed a large number of endangered orangutans.
Amazon rainforest, the world’s most biodiverse rainforest and home to 10% of all known plant and animal species was on fire for months during 2019. Tens of thousands smaller fires were registered thanks to the Brazil National Institute for Space Research (INPE). It is believed that Amazon was set on fire deliberately by local farmers to clear the space for industrial farming - for growing soybean crops and pastures.
Deforestation is a huge problem in Amazon - and often illegal - but 2019 got it totally out of control attracting attention to this issue from all over the world. Scientists warn that with the current deforestation pace, 40% of Amazon, that is often referred as the Earth lungs, could be gone by 2050.
Australian fire season 2019-2020 brought loss of about 10 million hectares of land - an area larger than the Netherlands - with unmerciful bushfires in NSW being the largest and destroying 5 million hectares of land. Since we are still in the middle of summer with some days temperatures showing record’s high, it’s hard to predict what the final damage would be.
Apart from the massive trees and vegetation loss current bushfires in Australia have devastating effect on the local wildlife. If only days ago the media were announcing death of 480 million animals, as of today this number climbed to the shocking 1 billion. At least one third of koala’s population in NSW has been already killed so far and there are fears that entire species have been wiped out.
As of today, the death toll from the raging fires climbed to 25 people with some people are still missing. Thousands of properties have been lost, too. The apocalyptic pictures of residents in Mallacoota, Victoria hiding on the local beach on New Year’s Eve to stay away from the fires have spread across social media like wildfire. Few days after the fires ravaged the area Mallacoota beaches are now covered with carcasses of dead birds that were struggling to find water and food following the fires.
Since the beginning of the fire season Sydney experienced its worth air pollution with air pollution index being 11 times more of what is considered a hazardous level. In just few days online and offline stores were out of stock for air purifiers since many residents were concerned of the pollution’s effects on health.
Notably, the massive fires and their devastating effects on Australian communities and local biome were predicted back in 2008 by Professor Ross Garnaut in his Climate Change Review. Professor Garnaut was commissioned by Australian government to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia and give recommendations on sustainable practices. Same as many other environmentalists and climate change scientists in his report Garnaut links an increasing number and size of Australian bushfires with climate change and global warming. What’s more, in the same report he predicts that if nothing changed, by 2067 Australia would have to deal with 100-300 days of extreme fire weather per year. To understand it better, 2013 was supposed to have 5-25 such days. Garnaut also foresaw that Australian fire seasons will start earlier, end later, and generally be more intense with this effect of climate change be directly observable by 2020.
Whether it’s been unusually hot and dry conditions accompanied with gale-like winds that set the Earth on fire in 2019, or human activities such as deforestation and - in many instances -slow response from local authorities in tackling the fires while they were still controllable - it’s already clear that the consequences of numerous massive bushfires will be seen for the years to come. Here at TOMbag, we believe it’s time to act NOW if we want any chance to reverse climate change.