Explained: The Relationship Between Climate Change and Wildfires
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Explained: The Relationship Between Climate Change and Wildfires

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The relationship between climate change and wildfires explained

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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.

① Atmosphere

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.

② Vegetation

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.

③ Ignitions

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.

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Mapping the World’s Forests: How Green is Our Globe?

Where are the world’s forests? These high-resolution maps show how the world’s carbon-sequestering forests are spread.

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Map of the world's forests

Mapping the World’s Forests: How Green is our Globe?

According to the United Nations (UN), forests cover 31% of the world’s land surface. They absorb roughly 15.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂) every year.

More than half of this green cover is spread across the boreal forests of Russia and Canada, the Amazon in South America, and China’s coniferous and broad-leaved forests. These carbon-sequestering forests purify the air, filter water, prevent soil erosion, and act as an important buffer against climate change.

RankCountryForest Cover (in millions of hectares)
#1🇷🇺 Russia815
#2🇧🇷 Brazil497
#3🇨🇦 Canada347
#4🇺🇸 United States310
#5🇨🇳 China220
#6🇦🇺 Australia134
#7🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo126
#8🇮🇩 Indonesia92
#9🇵🇪 Peru72
#10🇮🇳 India72

This series of maps by Adam Symington uses data sourced from images collected aboard the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite to reflect the ratio of the world’s surface covered with tree canopy to non-green areas.

To explore the entire high resolution forest map, click the image above. Below we’ll take a closer look at some of the world’s green zones.

Asia

Home to the boreal forests of Russia, China’s broad-leaved forests, the mangrove forests of Indonesia, and the green belt along the mighty Himalayas, Asia boasts some of the richest and most biodiverse green canopies of the world.

mapping tree cover in Eurasia

Russia holds more than one-fifth of the world’s trees across 815 million hectares—larger than the Amazon’s canopy. Like the country’s geography, most of Russia’s forests are situated in Asia, but spread into Europe as well.

To the southeast and with a forest cover of almost 220 million hectares, China is the fifth greenest country in the world. However, this was not always the case.

In 1990, China’s forests stretched across only 157 million hectares, covering 16.7% of its land. By the end of 2020, this forest cover reached 23.4%, thanks to decades of greening efforts.

On the other hand, the continent’s third most biodiverse country—Indonesia—is losing its green canopy. With a 92 million hectare-wide forest canopy, the country is home to between 10 and 15% of the world’s known plants, mammals, and birds. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, 74 million hectares of the country’s rainforest have been logged, burned, or degraded.

Meanwhile, the 72 million hectares of Indian forest cover can be followed closely with the eye. From the rainforests along the Himalayas in the northeast, to montane rainforests of the South Western Ghats, and finally to the coastal mangrove forests.

The Amazon and Congolian Rainforests

mapping tree cover in south americaIn South America, Brazil has the second-largest green cover in the world.

Most of its 497 million hectare-wide forest cover falls within “the lungs of the planet”—the Amazon rainforest.

One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Amazon rainforest is said to house about 10% of the world’s biodiversity, including over three million wildlife species and over 2,500 tree species.

mapping tree cover in africaOn the other side of the Atlantic, extending along the Congo River basin and its many tributaries, are the Congolian rainforests.

Spread across nine countries in Central Africa, this collection of tropical moist broadleaf forests is one of the remaining regions in the world that absorbs more carbon than it emits.

With 126 million hectares of the world’s green cover, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) contains the largest part of this rainforest, equal to about 60% of Central Africa’s lowland forest cover.

North American Forests

Canada, the United States, and Mexico combine for 723 million hectares of the world’s forests. The vast stretches of pine and fir trees in the Great White North, coupled with the United States’ mixed variety of forests, make the continent one of the largest carbon sinks in the world.

mapping tree cover in north america

With over 347 million hectares of forests, Canada ranks third in the list of greenest countries. Approximately 40% of its landmass is tree-covered, representing 9% of the global forest cover.

Its boreal forests store twice as much carbon per unit as tropical forests and help regulate the global carbon footprint.

The United States, on the other hand, holds about 8% of the world’s forests. Spread across 310 million hectares of land, these diverse forests range from the boreal forests of Alaska to pine plantations in the South, and the deciduous forests in the Eastern United States to the dry coniferous forests in the West. The country is also home to temperate rainforests along its West Coast and tropical rainforests in Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

The World’s Lost Forests

While China and a few select countries have proven that there is hope for building out the world’s forests, the story is different in other places around the world. This map by Adam Symington uses data from the University of Maryland to track the changes in the world’s forest cover from 2000 to 2021.

Map showing forest cover loss

Since 2000, the world lost over 104 million hectares of pristine and intact forest landscapes. In 2020 alone, over 10 thousand square kilometers of the Amazon were destroyed for the development of roads.

Deforestation and fragmentation are caused by a range of human development activities. But they are also exacerbated by climate change, with increasing forest fires, hurricanes, droughts, and other extreme weather events, as well as invasive species and insect outbreaks upsetting forest ecosystems.

At the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) held in Montréal, nations across the world committed to the 30X30 plan, which called for the conservation of the world’s land and marine ecosystems by 2030. Alongside other commitments to end deforestation and grow the world’s canopies, there is still hope for the world’s forests.

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