Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (tempting) recently, you’ll have seen a huge increase in coverage of various forest fires occurring across the planet, including our Amazon rainforest. Without the background knowledge on forest fires; why they occur, why they could be concerning or what we can do to help, these articles can often leave you feeling quite helpless.
By covering these topics, we hope you are able to grasp what we think is a vital topic in climate change and adjust your lifestyle to help alleviate the current effects.
What are forest fires, wildfires and bushfire and how do they start?
The simple explanation would be that a forest fire is a fire burning in an area of land with vast numbers of trees that can be hard to control.
A more accurate and, unfortunately, more complicated addition to this definition is that forest fires can be started both naturally and deliberately. Before humans inhabited the earth, forest fires would have started during dry weather spells, where plants would dry out and become the perfect fuel for fires started through extreme heat and spread by strong winds. Now, according to National Geographic, only 15% of forest fires start this way. Each year, 340 million hectares of vegetated land on this earth burns. This means that 255 million hectares are being burned each year by us, humans.
Natural forest fires benefit our planet’s ecosystems. They rejuvenate grasslands by removing infected greenery, returning vital nutrients to the soil and giving lower-level plants sunlight to become the next generation of plant life. Due to these advantages, some park managers or related bodies will use this to set slow and controlled low-level fires. This can often involve what is known as ‘back burning’ or ‘hazard reduction burning’: a process involving a deliberately started fire, used as an attempt to stop any approaching wildfire.
A different way in which forest fires or wildfires can start is through what is known as slash and burn agriculture. This is, sadly, a common technique used when growing food crops, whereby farmers will chop down and burn any vegetation. They then use the ash created to fertilise the crops grown in the soil. This soil, though, will only be fertile and useful for a couple of years, which is when the farmers move onto the next area of land to burn down then farm. On top of this, this technique can often be the cause of rampant wildfires that spread too fast to regulate. It is believed that 7% of the world’s population - that’s somewhere between 200 and 500 million people - use slash and burn as an agricultural technique. Latin America, Southeast Asia and Central Africa are some of the prominent areas using this technique and, within each country, there are thought to be 500,000 small farmers that clear two and a half acres each year. For those of you who are good at mental maths, that’s 1.25 million acres per country being destroyed annually.
Why should we be concerned?
There are more than a few reasons that forest fires, like the ones we’ve seen in the paper, are frightening:
Loss of biodiversity - when wildfires are out of control, their destruction can leave in their wake a huge loss of species and their ecosystems. The amazon rainforest is not one to burn frequently, like some parts of the US or Australia. The creatures in the amazon are not resilient when it comes to the heat, the smoke or the displacement of their habitat caused by fire. Australia is known for its Bushfires and many species depend on the bushfires to survive. However Australia was isolated for millions of years making its ecosystem very specific to its own island, so any loss of species is often seen as a greater loss. Around 244 species of mammals are found only in Australia. Before the fires, its great diversity of life was already threatened due to invasive species, habitat destruction, and climate change, according to Australia’s science research agency, CSIRO. Now, ecologists are fearing severe ecological consequences from this year's abnormally high levels of land being burnt at once. An estimated 1 billion animals have been lost, and scientists fear long-term damage to many sensitive ecosystems.
Health issues - forest fires and the fumes they produce can cause respiratory issues for both humans and animals living nearby. When man-made materials burn in these fires, the toxins are far worst then the smoke caused by natural materials. In some cases, the fumes can spread across the entire country, to other countries and into the seas.
Haze from record wildfires in Indonesia killed coral reefs in the late 1990s, according to a study in Science. Iron-rich smoke billowed out over the coast and fertilised the water, causing a huge plankton bloom called a “red tide.” The bloom asphyxiated coral reefs around the Mentawai Islands, off southwest Sumatra. The reefs choked on smoke like humans on land do, this is something people worry now with the great barrier reef and the coral reefs out in California after this year's US wildfire. Like oceans, river and lake systems also suffer, When burned soils flow into streams and rivers, they fertilise water plants and algae when the algae take over, It takes up all the oxygen in the water in order to grow and depletes dissolved oxygen, even more, when it dies and decomposes leading to the marine life to asphyxiate, die and decompose and use create worsening the nutrient levels in the water body.
Lastly, the fires occurring in the Arctic could release long-dormant microbes that have been trapped in the ice for tens of thousands of years this could create a world pandemic that we are not ready for. The ice may also release toxins and high levels of mercury into the ocean which may filter its way up the food chain!
Economic concerns - severe fires and its fumes can cause schools, businesses and airports to close and, added to the recovery and rebuilding of the areas destroyed, this can put a country into large amounts of debt.
Climate change - the carbon emissions from forest fires is almost incomprehensible. According to the Indonesia National Council on Climate Change, in 2005, 55% of carbon emissions in Indonesia’s peatlands was due to forest fires. This creates a vicious cycle, with global temperatures rising and weather patterns worsening, therefore, creating more forest fires.
The smoke from fires also has a great impact on climate change. The Australian Bushfire smoke has reached New Zealand and covered their Glaciers in ash turning them brown. This could mean the ice melts faster due to the so-called Albedo effect which is when the whiteness of an object reflects radiation away impacting its temperature so the glaciers turning brown will result in warmer temperatures and a higher level of melting!
Even the arctic circle has been experiencing an increase in wildfires. In June, Arctic fires produced fifty megatons of carbon dioxide, which equates to Sweden’s entire annual emissions. This was due to both the burning of the forests but also the release of trapped carbon in the ice. Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil that covers 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere; keeping microbes, carbon, poisonous mercury, and soil locked in place. However the forest fires are helping to increase the permafrost melt, melted snow becomes water that flows underground weakening the ice whilst the heat above melts it further. A study by Nature Geoscience concluded that melting permafrost and its resulting carbon feedback loops could contribute to 1.69°C of warming! Abrupt thawing of permafrost will double previous estimates of potential carbon emissions from permafrost thaw in the Arctic and is already rapidly changing the landscape and ecology of the circumpolar north.
This abrupt thawing is fast and dramatic, affecting landscapes in unprecedented ways, Forests can become lakes in the course of a month, landslides occur with no warning, and invisible methane seep holes can swallow snowmobiles whole!
How can we help?
While it may seem futile to try and, on an individual level, help the wildfire crises, there are certainly ways that we can all help.
Donate to or help with emergency appeals and charitable campaigns:
Find both large and small-scale organisations to support that are working with indigenous people, native wildlife or national governments to make a positive impact. This could include helping finance rescues and firemen services to knitting gloves for burnt koalas!
If you’re still reading this, you’re clearly interested in the topic and want to help in some way or another. Simply staying educated on the topic and using this to share your knowledge and aggravation with others can help spread the word that something must be done. This includes being aware of the products you’re buying on a daily basis and what impact their production may have had on the planet. For example, palm oil is in an astounding number of ordinary products now, even in the UK, so choosing brands that avoid palm products entirely or farm it sustainably (check this through WWF or related organisations) can have a monumental impact on human started fires in the amazon and given up a meat-based diet is a quick and easy way to help with climate change