Explained: The Relationship Between Climate Change and Wildfires
How Climate Change is Influencing Wildfires
Each year, thousands of wildfires burn through millions of acres of land around the world.
We’ve already seen the mass devastation that wildfires can bring, especially in places like Australia, Serbia, and California. But new research by the UN indicates that things might get even worse by the end of the century. By 2100, the frequency of wildfires could increase by up to 50%.
What’s causing this influx of wildfires around the world? Below, we dig into how climate change is impacting wildfires—and how in turn, wildfires are impacting climate change.
Climate Conditions That Support Wildfires
Before diving in, it’s worth going over the basics of wildfires, and how they get started in the first place. An area’s vulnerability to wildfires, also known as its fire regime, depends on three major conditions: its atmosphere, vegetation, and ignitions.
Atmosphere plays a big part in how sensitive an area is to wildfires. For instance, wind can increase oxygen supply in an area, which would help fuel a wildfire, and may even transfer embers to new locations.
Vegetation is also a huge factor in whether or not an area is vulnerable to wildfires. A region with drier vegetation may catch fire more easily, and an area with more forest or shrubs provides more fuel for potential blazes.
An area that’s close to volcanic activity, or prone to lightning storms may be more susceptible to wildfires. However, human activity like campfires or faulty equipment can also trigger fires, so popular areas for camping or logging may be at higher risk as well.
While these conditions vary depending on the location, in general, fire regimes are being impacted by climate change, which is causing an influx in the duration and intensity of wildfires around the world.
The Fire Climate Feedback Loop
Since the 1850s, global surface temperatures have risen by about 1.0°C (1.8°F).
These increased surface temperatures have had far-reaching impacts on our climate—in the Northern Hemisphere, warmer temperatures have led to less snow, earlier arrival of spring, and ultimately longer, drier fire seasons.
These longer fire seasons have led to an influx of wildfires. But here’s the kicker—wildfires emit tons of carbon. In 2021, wildfires around the world emitted an estimated 1.76 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, which for context, is more than double the annual emissions from the entire country of Germany.
This carbon gets trapped in our atmosphere and contributes to rising surface temperatures. In other words, more carbon creates more wildfires—and more wildfires create more carbon.
Extreme Weather Events Are Rising In General
It’s not just wildfires that are growing in frequency and intensity because of climate change—droughts, heatwaves, and floods are also becoming more common around the world.
This year, temperatures reached all-time highs across Europe, which wrecked havoc across the continent, impacted infrastructure, and even took lives.
Experts warn that this may become the new normal. To help mitigate risk, governments, policymakers, and companies need to band together to create safeguards and establish proper preventative measures.
Ranked: The 20 Most Air-Polluted Cities on Earth
Using 2022 average PM2.5 concentrations, we’ve ranked the most polluted cities in the world according to IQAir.
Ranked: The 20 Most Air-Polluted Cities on Earth
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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost the entire global population (99%) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits.
In the above map, we use 2022 average PM2.5 concentrations from IQAir’s World Air Quality Report to visualize the most air-polluted major cities in the world.
World’s Air Pollution Hot Spots
As one of the standard air quality indicators used by the WHO, the PM2.5 concentration refers to the quantity of fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less in a given volume of air.
Fine particulate matter that is this small can penetrate the lungs when inhaled and enter the bloodstream, affecting all major organs.
Based on annual average PM2.5 concentrations (μg/m³) in 2022, here are the most polluted cities in the world.
|Rank||City||2022 average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³)|
|1||🇵🇰 Lahore, Pakistan||97.4|
|2||🇨🇳 Hotan, China||94.3|
|3||🇮🇳 Bhiwadi, India||92.7|
|4||🇮🇳 Delhi, India||92.6|
|5||🇵🇰 Peshawar, Pakistan||91.8|
|6||🇮🇳 Darbhanga, India||90.3|
|7||🇮🇳 Asopur, India||90.2|
|8||🇹🇩 N'Djamena, Chad||89.7|
|9||🇮🇳 New Delhi, India||89.1|
|10||🇮🇳 Patna, India||88.9|
|11||🇮🇳 Ghaziabad, India||88.6|
|12||🇮🇳 Dharuhera, India||87.8|
|13||🇮🇶 Baghdad, Iraq||86.7|
|14||🇮🇳 Chapra, India||85.9|
|15||🇮🇳 Muzaffarnagar, India||85.5|
|16||🇵🇰 Faisalabad, Pakistan||84.5|
|17||🇮🇳 Greater Noida, India||83.2|
|18||🇮🇳 Bahadurgarh, India||82.2|
|19||🇮🇳 Faridabad, India||79.7|
|20||🇮🇳 Muzaffarpur, India||79.2|
With numbers these high, the concentration of some or all of the following pollutants are at dangerous levels in these cities:
- Ground-level ozone
- Particulate matter
- Carbon monoxide
- Sulfur dioxide
- Nitrogen dioxide
At the top of the list, Lahore in Pakistan has a combination of high vehicle and industrial emissions, as well as smoke from brick kilns, crop residue, general waste burning, and dust from construction sites.
Air pollution levels can also be impacted by practices such as large-scale tree removal in order to build new roads and buildings.
As a result of its growing population and rapidly expanding industrial sector, India has 14 cities on the list, outpacing China, formerly considered the world’s number one air pollution source.
The only African country on the list, Chad, experienced severe dust storms in 2022 that resulted in an 18% increase in PM2.5 concentration in 2022 compared to the previous year.
The Cost of Poor Air Quality
Poor air quality is one of the leading causes of early deaths worldwide, just behind high blood pressure, tobacco use, and poor diet.
According to a 2020 study by the Health Effects Institute, 6.67 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2019.
In addition to the millions of premature deaths each year, the global cost of health damages associated with air pollution currently sits at $8.1 trillion.
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