The past 12 months, summer seasons all over the world have been characterised by wild fires. The Australian bushfires dominated the news last year, while the Siberian and US wildfires wrecked damage only a few months ago. With even fires in the Arctic Circle, climate change is changing what we know about forest-management, human security and military preparedness.
Australia’s Black Summer
Last year, Australia’s ‘Black Summer’ of unprecedented bushfires dominated the news with photos of thick clouds of smoke that travelled all the way to New Zealand and Argentina, and the news of the three billion animals that were killed or displaced in the fires. That fire season, 18 million hectares were burned and 30 people died. While bushfires are not uncommon to Australia, the rising temperatures and increase in the volume of dry fuels and solids increases the number of high-risk fire days in the year. The impact of the fires is not only significant for biodiversity, but freshwater sources have also been polluted.
Moreover, the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) ended up being deployed to fight the fires and provide humanitarian assistance, although they are not formally trained for such work – reducing the military preparedness of the ADF. Besides, health risks for people lie in the high levels of air and water pollution as well in the increase of domestic violence that is noticed after disasters. Experts have studied the links between domestic violence and natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and bushfires, and found evidence suggesting that such events unmask or exacerbate domestic abuse.
Siberian fires and melting permafrost
In the year 2020 the wildfire extremes continued. After an unusually warm winter, Siberia experienced record-breaking temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius in June, and the first six months of 2020 were on average 5 degrees warmer than the same period between 1981-2010. Human induced climate change has been confirmed to have contributed to the occurrence of these fires. The high temperatures increased the occurrence of wildfires in the Arctic circle, and it also contributed the thawing of permafrost. The thawing permafrost is threatening infrastructure, as houses, defence installations, gas and oil infrastructures are built on collapsing ground. Melting permafrost and poorly maintained equipment led to one of Russia’s worst oil spills, when several tons of diesel fuel leaked from a fuel tank at the Norilsk Energy Company No. 3 thermal power plant near the industrial city of Norilsk. In addition, the methane emissions from melting permafrost have not been incorporated in the climate-models and projections and thus pose a significant risk to the success of global climate adjustments and agreements.
Western United States wildfires
At the same time, Western US wildfires spread as far north as Oregon and Washington, which are normally much wetter states. As a result of the intense and severe wildfires, schools had to close, increasing the number of days children missed out on education in addition to the Covid-19 lockdown. Moreover, the unique ecosystem on the west coast of the US, including the redwood forests that are sometimes a thousand years old, was also severely affected by the fires. Read more about security impacts of wildfires in the U.S. here.
Uncontrolled Argentinian fires for agriculture
The grasslands in the Paraná Delta and farmland in Central Argentina have been burning since February, while fires in in the region of Córdoba started to get out of control in August. Fires are often ignited in this region in order to create a more productive topsoil on farmland. These fires have been ignited for decades, but this year they have gotten out of control as a result of an unusually dry winter. The Paraná River has moreover been at its lowest level in 60 years, enabling wildfires to rage quicker. Here, security implications include pollution of air and water, as with the fires elsewhere in the world too.
Climate change is affecting lives, ecosystems and security as a result of increasing wildfires that threaten military capabilities, personal security and environmental security. Where fires rage in such unprecedented ways, freshwater sources are often polluted due to the smoke and ash that enter the water ways. Moreover, air pollution is an issue, as for example, Australia’s air quality was reduced to the worst quality in the world last summer, amounting to 26 times of levels considered hazardous to human health. Such health and environmental impacts of large fires should also be considered in the long-term impact of extreme fires. In addition, the increase in domestic violence as well as insecurity as a result of collapsing buildings (in Siberia) show us that the impact of climate change is transcending to other arenas, and that forest management, disaster and military preparedness are in need of change that fit the new reality.
Photocredit: US Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region / Unsplash