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Extreme wildfires set to get worse globally, says UN

Agencies | , Paris
Feb 24, 2022 05:05 AM IST

Even the most ambitious efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions will not prevent a dramatic surge in the frequency of extreme fire conditions, a report commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded.

“By the end of the century, the probability of wildfire events similar to Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer or the huge Arctic fires in 2020 occurring in a given year is likely to increase by 31-57 percent,” it said. The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes, and more extreme weather means stronger, hotter and drier winds to fan the flames.

Large wildfires, which can rage uncontrolled for days or weeks, cause respiratory and heart problems, especially for the elderly and very young.(AFP Photo. Representative image)
Large wildfires, which can rage uncontrolled for days or weeks, cause respiratory and heart problems, especially for the elderly and very young.(AFP Photo. Representative image)

Such wildfires are burning where they have always occurred, and are flaring up in unexpected places such as drying peatlands and thawing permafrost. The western US, northern Siberia, central India, and eastern Australia already are seeing more blazes, according to the report.

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“Fires are not good things,” said co-author Peter, an expert in forest fire management at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “The impacts on people — socially, health-wise, psychologically — are phenomenal and long-term,” he told journalists in a briefing.

Large wildfires, which can rage uncontrolled for days or weeks, cause respiratory and heart problems, especially for the elderly and very young.

A recent study in The Lancet concluded that exposure to wildfire smoke results, on average, in more than 30,000 deaths each year across 43 nations for which data was available.

Areas once considered safe from major fires won’t be immune, including the Arctic, which the report said was “very likely to experience a significant increase in burning.”

Tropical forests in Indonesia and the southern Amazon of South America also are likely to see increased wildfires, the report concluded.

“Uncontrollable and devastating wildfires are becoming an expected part of the seasonal calendars in many parts of the world,” said Andrew Sullivan, with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, one of the report’s authors.

But UN researchers said many nations continue to spend too much time and money fighting fires and not enough trying to prevent them. Land use changes can make the fires worse, such as logging that leaves behind debris that can easily burn and forests that are intentionally ignited to clear land for farming, the report said.

Economic damages in the United States — one of the few countries to calculate such costs — have varied between $71 to $348 billion in recent years, according to an assessment cited in the report.

In the United States, officials recently unveiled a $50 billion effort to reduce fire risks over the next decade by more aggressively thinning forests around “hot spots” where nature and neighborhoods collide. However, the administration of President Joe Biden has so far identified only a fraction of the funding called for in the plan.

Major blazes can also be devastating for wildlife, pushing some endangered species closer to the brink of extinction.

Nearly three billion mammals, reptiles, birds and frogs were killed or harmed, for example, by Australia’s devastating 2019-20 bushfires, scientists have calculated.

Even the Arctic — previously all but immune to fires — has seen a dramatic increase in blazes, including so-called “zombie fires” that smoulder underground throughout winter before bursting into flames anew. But wildfires also accelerate climate change, feeding a vicious cycle of more fires and rising temperatures.

Last year, forests going up in flames emitted more than 2.5 billion tonnes of planet-warming CO2 in July and August alone, equivalent to India’s annual emissions from all sources, the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) reported.

Compiled by 50 top experts, the report called for a rethink on how to tackle the problem.

“Current responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong places,” investing in managing fires once they start rather than prevention and risk reduction, said UN environment chief Inger Andersen.

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