Wildfires are now destroying twice as many forests around the world as at the turn of the century, which is “likely” due to climate change, a report released today says.
Compared to 2001, wildfires destroy 30 million more acres each year, the equivalent of the area of Belgium, according to satellite data compiled by Global Forest Watch (GFW), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the University of Maryland.
70% of the area destroyed by fires over the past 20 years is accounted for by northern forests, which cover most of the territory of Russia, Canada and Alaska, and are the world’s largest reservoirs of carbon dioxide.
In Russia, about 21 million hectares have burned since 2001, which is just over 30% of the area of France. Australia, Canada and the United States also suffered huge losses from the fires.
These fires, according to the report, account for a quarter of the total forest loss since the turn of the century, with the rest due to deforestation and other natural events such as hurricanes and floods. Deforestation of the Amazon also played a significant role. So Brazil has lost 55 million hectares of forest since 1990, which is almost the area of Ukraine (60 million hectares).
Every year, forest loss due to wildfires increases by about 4%, or 2,300,000 acres. And 50% of this increase is due to large fires that break out in northern forests, which are “probably the result of warming in the northern regions,” the researchers note.
They say climate change is likely the main driver behind the increase in fires, as extreme heatwaves are five times more common today than they were 150 years ago. In addition, forest fires cause a massive release of greenhouse gases, further exacerbating climate change.
“In the northern regions, carbon dioxide has been concentrated in the soil for hundreds of years, protected by a layer of moisture,” explained James McCarthy, an analyst at GFW. “These fires, more frequent and stronger, burn this layer and release carbon dioxide.”
The researchers are calling on governments to make forests more resilient by halting deforestation and limiting some management practices, notably controlled burning, which is very dangerous during periods of drought.
“Forests are one of the best climate change defenses we have,” McCarthy concluded.