John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Blame more hot weather and longer droughts for a predicted uptick in land-blackening blazes.
Scientists have warned that the Western U.S. soon might see a rapid increase in super-intense wildfires. And now the first major assessment of the European Union's fire-adaptation capability posits a similar crackling armageddon, with acres of damage caused by such blazes possibly increasing by 200 percent by 2090.
The basis behind this alarming estimate is the warming atmosphere's aggravating effect on heat streaks and persistent droughts, say European researchers in Regional Environmental Change. As it stands, wildfires ravage about 2,000 square miles of land in Europe each year. Though certain plants rely on fire to reproduce, especially in the Mediterranean, a major uptick in fires would be nasty news. The "aggregate consequences of large-scale destruction are overwhelmingly negative: fires devastate the carbon storage of forests and can lead to large economic damages and loss of life," say the researchers.
The assessment assumes that humanity does little to curtail the production of greenhouse gases. Under such a high-emissions scenario, places that could see an explosion in fires include Portugal, the Balkans, and several Eastern European countries. The whole south of Europe seems to get the worst of it in general, partly because there's a predicted slack-off in rain there later this century. The left portion of this map shows where the blazes could be rampant, if the E.U. does not establish a rigorous program of prescribed burns:
But the flaming orange, ashy-skied future of the E.U. is not written in stone. The scientists behind this study believe those prescribed burns could have a great impact on the extent of damage. If governments were to regularly singe the land to remove dead wood and other fuels, it could cut the predicted 200 percent increase in scorched acreage to a mere 50 percent, they say. And they recommend that stakeholders consider more tactics such as using agricultural fields as natural fire breaks, planting fewer fire-prone species of trees, and improving firefighters' response times.
Oh, that leaves out the most-obvious one: Getting people to stop setting off so many dang fires in the first place. More than 95 percent of wildfires in Europe can be traced to human dumbness, such as leaving campfires unattended, arson, and tossing cigarettes out of car windows. Notes the study's coauthor, Andrey Krasovskii: "We could prevent many of these fires simply by being more responsible."