Forest Fires

A Devastating Effect of Climate Change

Forest Fires

Climate Change is the defining issue of the present times and human beings have been at the forefront of it since the change began. Existence of humans is directly impacted by changes in climatic conditions. Since time immemorial, human beings have contributed in degradation of climatic conditions by means of over exploitation of resources affecting balance of nature, rapid deforestation, industrialisation and by releasing environmental pollutants like CO2, methane and other green house gases. The increase in pollution by green house gasses has caused the phenomenon of global warming an issue, common all over the earth. The increase in quantity of green house gases in atmosphere increases heat trapped on earth and thereby raises the global average temperature. This has number of adverse effects like increasing melting glaciers, increasing temperature of earth thereby making more and more difficult for survival of human and animals etc.

Recently, climate change became a raging issue, attracting attention of the entire world due to the rampaging bush fires in Australia. Since September 2019, fires have been blazing in south eastern region of Australia creating havoc. Forest fires in Australia is not a new phenomenon but the year 2019 marked an alarming increase in temperature, extreme drought conditions followed by the bush fires. By the beginning of 2020, around 10 million hectares had burned destroying millions of animals and disrupting life of large number of people apart from burning millions of trees to ashes. The fires have been so devastating that its effect has spread to New Zealand turning New Zealand’s South Island’s glaciers brown.        The bush fire catastrophe increased Australian capital city Canberra’s air quality index 20 times above the level considered hazardous.

Forest fires have also been on the rise in other parts of the world.  The 2019 bush fires destroyed thousands of acres of forests in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay. The Amazon rainforest which is the world’s largest terrestrial CO2 sink was damaged severely by the fires. In 2019, India also faced one of the worst fires to have affected the Bandipur National Park. Around twenty thousand acres of forest land was reduced to ashes affecting lives of numerous flora and fauna. As per the forest survey of India in 2019, large wildfires raged across several states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala etc. These increasing incidences of forest fires are expected to further increase due to climatic changes occurring due to human activities which is fuelling global warning.

Causes of Forest Fires

Wildfires can be caused by broadly 2 reasons – Natural and Man-Made. Natural factors cause wildfire by setting up an ignition fire. Lightening Strike, Volcanic eruption are major natural causes of wildfire. As volcanic eruptions occur in specific areas, lightning or thunder strike that is quite common is responsible for natural starting of forest fires. Manmade causes of wildfire are more in number compared to natural causes. This is because human beings involve in variety of activities like shifting cultivation, arson, discarded cigarettes, sparks from electrical equipments etc. which become reason for spread of forest fires.

Global warming increases temperature of earth and numerous studies have established that hotter climate favours spread of wildfire. This is because increase in temperature of earth affects moisture content in air and makes the air drier. Further, it also adversely affects water cycle thereby disrupting rainfall and bringing about spells of draught. This cycle of affects contributes to the spread of wildfire.

Climate Change and Increasing Incidents of Forest Fires

Earth has been warming constantly due to human activities. This increase in warming provides the needed surroundings for spread of forest fires. In case of Australia, it has been victim of wildfires since ages. Huge fires like in 1926- South East Victoria, 1939-Black Friday Victoria, 1983- Ash Wednesday in South Australia and Victoria, 2009- Black Saturday in Victoria are some which caused loss of land, people, flora and fauna. However due to changing climate conditions wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent in Australia as well as other parts of the world like in Amazon, California, and even in India. Increase in global warming has been priming the earth for extreme weather conditions like intense heat waves, long periods of draught which increase incidences of forest fires.

In the recent Australian wildfire case 3 climate fluctuations have been marked out which contributed to extreme conditions. One among them is the Southern Annular Mode (SAM). Due to SAM, Westerly winds that circle the Southern Ocean shift southwards towards Antarctica which results in rain bearing winter cold fronts to bypass the Australian continent. Subsequently, Australia has witnessed a long-term decline in winter rainfall and hence the drought experienced by Australia has been prolonged setting up the base for increase in forest fires. Second factor which has worsened Australia’s fire season is the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Due to IOD, water in the western half of Indian Ocean becomes warmer and in Eastern half it is cooler. This causes rising air over western part of ocean resulting in rain in Africa and sinking dry air in eastern Indian Ocean near Australia.  This phenomenon has considerably increased due to global warming and has caused significant decrease in rainfall as a result Australia has been subjected to prolonged drought. Last is the sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW). SSW is a weather phenomenon which causes winds circling in the Stratosphere above south pole to reverse direction. This is caused due to disturbance of weather conditions in the lower atmosphere which effects the polar jet stream of westerlies. This phenomenon of SSW causes stratospheric temperature to rise by 40°C. SSW is a rare phenomenon in southern hemisphere however this has a role to play in the current case of Australia fires because it adds on the hot dry conditions of the continent and aggravates it. Even though natural causes like lightning strike cause ignition in cases of forest fires but the changes in climate conditions due to bath natural and manmade factors create environmental conditions for the fires to spread.

Mitigating Measures

The major issue aiding in spread of forest fires is global warming. Human activities like fossil fuel burning, rapid industrialization, deforestation, environment polluting practices like slash and burn cultivation, etc. have all contributed to global rise in temperature. All big, rich economies should strive hard to reduce the intensity of their emissions. At present, situation has deteriorated to such an extent that only cutting carbon emissions will not serve the purpose. There is an urgent need to decarbonise. Governments need to put behind their political interests and put in check pollution caused by mining, coal industries, etc. Also there is need to for a centralized system as in Australia which would give the public access to information about location and spread of fire so as to minimize losses. Forest fires cannot be completely stopped but government should work in co-ordination with local residents and make efforts to increase public participation to deal with forest fires.

In case of India, the number of forest officials guarding forests are way behind the required numbers and there is need to increase this. Further, people need to be made more aware of side effects of slash and burn cultivation as it also has the potential to become a major forest fire. Government needs to be alert and put in place stringent penalties for arson and people who callously use fire to clear the lands. Restoring a forest with its wildfire, waterways, plants, etc. would take decades and hence most critical task at present is to retain what is left and conserve it at all costs. At the current rate of deterioration of forests, the phenomenon of forest dieback is eminent. This refers to an unending cycle which starts when certain amount of forest is lost, and the remaining area is unable to make up for the imbalance in ecological cycle caused due to the loss. Forest dieback needs to be stopped as it will cause a spiral of collapse which will further increase forest fires and unending cycle destruction will begin. Communication and response time to deal with wildfires has been cut down considerably but practices like controlled burning of undergrowth during winter in order to leave nothing during summer to burn need to be stopped. In India, with increase in number of staffs, it is essential to increase funds for protection of forests particularly in case of forest fires. Proper equipments like supplies of food, water, etc. need to be readily available while dealing with bush fires.

Apart from preventive measures combating measures also need to be properly planned so as to fight forest fires in case where its start cannot be avoided. Approaches like involving large number of people leafy green boughs to beat out the fire can be used in case of small fires. For large fires measures like counter fire (a line is cleared of combustibles and manned so that when the wild fire approaches, people manning the line set a counter fire which would rush towards the wild fire and extinguish it), containing fire in compartments bordered by barriers like road, ridges, streams, etc. technological approach like spraying fire retardant chemicals, pumping water to extinguish the fire can be used to control forest fires.

Conclusion

Forest fires are common in nature. However, the recent decade has seen a significant increase in number and intensity of these fires. As discussed, these fires are fuelled by increasing global warming which sets up a base of hot and dry climate for the fire to spread. Also, human activities like deforestation, slash and burn cultivation, etc. contribute in their increase. The recent fires like in California-2018, Amazon-2019 have shown that the damage caused by these is almost impossible to regain. This calls for an urgent and immediate action in the direction of stopping such fires.  Even though natural causes of fires like lightening cannot be controlled, the measures to control pollution and tackle global warming will help a great deal to reduce the damage caused by bushfires. Government action and alertness is essential to deal with this issue. Even public awareness is needed so that deliberate fires being setup can be stopped. The recent deteriorating trend of forest fires should serve as an ultimatum and collective, coordinated action plan needs to be adopted by individual governments at national level as well as in the international level else these fires will keep on increasing and an apocalypse would become unavoidable.

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