(Reuters. 2020. Koala in wildlife care after being burnt in Black Summer Fires on Kangaroo Island, South Australia).

Climate Change and Fire

Section
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
Page
10.4

In Section 7 and elsewhere in T10 I have talked about fire and its profound impact upon the natural world (e.g. see 7.6). The use of fire deliberately and directly to clear or alter habitat has been discussed, as well as its egregious use as a tool to attack environmentalists (e.g. see 6.3). In this webpage, instead, I will discuss the indirect increase in fires brought about by climate change.

(Abraham, C. 2009. Aftermath of Black Saturday Fires in Victoria, Australia, 2009).

Figure SPM 91 shown on the previous webpage broke the world and oceans down into regions and intersected these with climate change impacts. One of the impacts assessed was ‘Fire weather’ and the IPCC suggests that this will increase in 35 of approximately 50 relevant terrestrial regions (obviously, doesn’t apply in oceans, ice-covered areas, etc.), and that there is high-medium confidence in these projections. This, then, applies to 70% of the earth’s land area; a most significant impact.

The IPCCibid. has summarised the effect as:

A.3.5 Human influence has likely increased the chance of compound extreme events since the 1950s. This includes increases in the frequency of concurrent heatwaves and droughts on the global scale (high confidence), fire weather in some regions of all inhabited continents (medium confidence), and compound flooding in some locations (medium confidence)”;

And in their Working Group II report2

“SPM.B.1.1 Widespread, pervasive impacts to ecosystems, people, settlements, and infrastructure have resulted from observed increases in the frequency and intensity of climate and weather extremes, including hot extremes on land and in the ocean, heavy precipitation events, drought and fire weather (high confidence). Increasingly since AR5 (previous report), these observed impacts have been attributed to human-induced climate change particularly through increased frequency and severity of extreme events. These include increased heat-related human mortality (medium confidence), warm-water coral bleaching and mortality (high confidence), and increased drought related tree mortality (high confidence). Observed increases in areas burned by wildfires have been attributed to human-induced climate change in some regions (medium to high confidence)”.

and…

“SPM B.1 Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability”. They go on to say: “The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt. (high confidence)”.

There are four key conclusions here:

  • There has been an increase in fire weather frequency and intensity worldwide;
  • There has been an increase in areas burned by bushfires worldwide;
  • These extreme weather events are causing “widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature”, and “has led to irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt”;
  • These changes are “human-induced” and “beyond natural climate variability”.

This will seem obvious, depressing – but straightforward – to many people in the world, but if you live in a strange country like Australia, as I do, you will be enmired within layers of myth and obfuscation about fire that oppose these findings, and range from the worshipful to the bizarre; beliefs that fire is ‘necessary’, ‘healthy’, ‘natural’, ‘cleansing/rejuvenating’, and ‘cultural’ abound (see Section 7.6).

Case study: Australia and ‘Black Summer Fires’ 2019-20

Apologies for using Australia again as a case study, but I believe it is justified because fire has a large presence on this dry continent, profoundly affects Nature, and is subject to a wide cross-section of beliefs and practices; all in all, this should reflect some, at least, of what is happening re fire in the rest of the world.

The IPCC Working Group II Report2 contains regional sections, as well as global, and Chapter 11 is devoted to Australasia. Figure 11.1.1 presents the change in dangerous fire weather days 1985-2020 and, as per the global trend identified, the majority of Australia has seen a considerable increase in such weather, even in this short time.

The report goes onibid. to summarise the situation as:

 “In Australia, the frequency and severity of dangerous fire weather conditions is increasing, with partial attribution to climate change (very high confidence) (Dowdy and Pepler, 2018; Abram et al., 2021) (11.2.1, Figure Box 11.1.1), especially in southern and eastern Australia during spring and summer (Harris and Lucas, 2019). Although Australia’s eucalypt forests and woodlands are fire adapted (Collins, 2020), increasing intensity and frequency of fires may exceed their resilience due to shorter intervals between high-severity fires (Bowman et al., 2014; Etchells et al., 2020; Lindenmayer and Taylor, 2020a). Recent fires have severely impacted eastern rainforests, including significant Gondwana refugia (Abram et al., 2021).”

And moving from historical observations to future projectionsibid.: “Fire weather is projected to increase in frequency, severity and duration for southern and eastern Australia (high confidence).”

Similarly, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Climate Extremes, asserts that3: “Catastrophic wildfires like the Black Saturday wildfires in 2009 and Canberra Wildfires of 2003, which were so large and dangerous that they generated their own weather systems – including the world’s first filmed fire tornado – are likely to be more frequent in the future as a result of climate change across southeast Australia.”

These observations and projections are followed by lengthy tables in the IPCC report2 listing the observed and likely affects on ecosystems, a small portion of which – the vegetation of forests and woodlands in south-eastern Australia – is reproduced in the box following Map 11.1.1.

(IPCC. 2022. Australia: increase in number of dangerous fire weather days 1985-2020. [Apologies for watermark; source approved, but still in editing process]).

The example from the table is a very common and widespread event post frequent or severe fire: replacement of larger, older specimens and species with shorter-lived, ‘r-selected’ species, woody shrubs, and pests and weeds; a diverse, wetter, novel and mature system is replaced with a depauperate, generic, drier, immature ecosystem. ‘Rejuvenation’ indeed!

A particularly severe example of a recent fire was the ‘Black Summer Fires’ of eastern Australia that burnt between September 2019 and February 2020 and received international attention, such was its scale and impact. The IPCC2 summarised its impact as:

The Australian wildfires of 2019–2020 resulted in 33 deaths, over 3,000 houses destroyed, $2.3 billion in 34 insured losses, and $3.6 billion in losses for tourism, hospitality, agriculture and forestry (CoA, 2020e; Filkov et al., 2020) (Figure Box 11.1.2). Smoke caused a further 429 deaths and 3230 hospitalizations as a result of respiratory distress and illness, with health costs totalling $1.95 billion (Johnston et al., 2020). These fires burnt about 5.8 to 8.1 million hectares of forest in eastern Australia (Ward et al., 2020; Godfree 38 et al., 2021) resulting in the loss or displacement of nearly 3 billion vertebrate animals (CoA, 2020e; Wintle 39 et al., 2020). 114 listed threatened species lost at least 50% of their habitat, and 49 lost 80% (Wintle et al., 40 2020) among other severe ecological impacts (Hyman et al., 2020). Smoke carried over 4,000 km to New Zealand where it increased snow/glacier melt through darkening surfaces and produced detectable odour (Pu et al. 2021)(Filkov et al., 2020). The fire season of 2019–20 was at least 30% more likely than a century ago due to the influence of climate change (van Oldenborgh et al., 2021).”

Extraordinary! The “loss or displacement of nearly 3 billion vertebrate animals”! The IPCC attempted to summariseibid. these massive impacts in a diagram – 11.1.2 – below:

(IPCC. 2022. [Apologies for watermark; source approved, but still in editing process]).
(NSW RFS/Vic CFA. 2020. Fires S-E Australia to 31st January)

 

This is habitat and species destruction on a grand scale. The area of the fires can be demonstrated from the following maps.

The first map shows the area burnt in NSW, Victoria, (and Kangaroo Island, SA) alone – ~7.5 million hectares4.

If the whole of Australia is assessed, then the total is closer to 19 million hectaresibid., an area the size of Syria, and larger than over 100 of the world’s nations.

 

(arcgis.com./Henderson, C. 2021. Australian Bushfires 2019-20. [Compiled from various satellite and information sources, e.g. NOAA, Esri]; red = burnt areas).

 

(Stanford Daily. 2018. Syria: regional and global context. The Black Summer Fires 2019-20 in Australia burnt an area equivalent to Syria).

 

Maps and diagrams can present a somewhat dry and unemotional perspective on an event such as this. The photographs and images of artists and affected everyday people can, perhaps, present an emotionally ‘truer’ picture.

 

(Getty Images. 2020. Forest at Torrington, NSW, after Black Summer Fires).

 

(WWF-Australia. 2020. Kangaroo killed in Black Summer Fires. Fires of this scale and intensity kill almost all vertebrates immediately, or they die shortly after of shock, starvation, or predation).

 

(Reuters. 2020. Koala in wildlife care after being burnt in Black Summer Fires on Kangaroo Island, South Australia).

 

The response to more frequent, intense, and larger fires in Australia, and to more predicted fires in Australia, is – you guessed it – more fire! (See sections 7.6, 6.3 and 1.5.9).  Burning the bush meets so many base needs, so many fears, so many political and cultural agendas that it is the unshakable response to the problem in my country and the guarantee that the situation will only get worse, for humans and for Nature. This is maladaptation at its worst (maladaptation “refers to actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, including via increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased or shifted vulnerability to climate change, more inequitable outcomes, or diminished welfare, now or in the future.”2).

I sincerely hope responses in other countries are more sophisticated and enlightened.

 

In the next webpage we will look at the two, broad, ways in which we hope to reduce adverse climate change effects: mitigation and adaptation.

 

1 IPCC. 2021. Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., et. al. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, USA.

2 IPCC. 2022. Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerabilities – Summary for Policy Makers; Working Group II Contributions to the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC. WMO, UNEP, Geneva, Switzerland.

3 Climate Extremes ARC Centre of Excellence. 2019. Climate change will increase frequency of Australia’s most dangerous fires. < https://climateextremes.org.au/climate-change-will-increase-frequency-of-australias-most-dangerous-fires/ >

4 Wikipedia. 2022. 2019–20 Australian Bushfire Season. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_Australian_bushfire_season > .

Explore Other Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10.1 Introduction

Elizabeth Kolbert’s absorbing ‘Under a White Sky’1 (see 10.9) begins with a boat trip down the much-abused Chicago River in the USA. ‘Down’ doesn’t have much meaning here; just what is ‘upstream’, or ‘downstream’ on this poor river is a...

10.2 Pollution: Status and Context

“Industrialization, use of pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers, crop residues in agriculture, urbanization, forest fires, desert dust, and inadequate waste management have intensified environmental health risks and pollution, especially in l...

10.3 Greenhouse Gas Pollution and Climate Change

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal in its identification of the tight and close relationship between anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and global warming; and from this spins forth a whole r...

10.4 Climate Change and Fire

In Section 7 and elsewhere in T10 I have talked about fire and its profound impact upon the natural world (e.g. see 7.6). The use of fire deliberately and directly to clear or alter habitat has been discussed, as well as its egregious use as a too...

10.5 Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Previously in T10 I have discussed solutions to the various problems thrown up in each section at the end of that section, but as climate change is being treated in Section 10 as a special case, with webpages 10.3 and 10.4 devoted to it, I thought...

10.6 Solid Waste: domestic

Moving from gaseous wastes/pollution, to solid wastes, I covered in webpage 6.7 the television program ‘War on Waste’ and commended it for covering this important, but ‘unsexy’, topic in an interesting and engaging way for the general public; it w...

10.7 Solid Waste: oceanic

This strange odyssey certainly has some of the rambling eccentricities of the more famous ‘Moby Dick’, but the similarities end there as this is a modern tale of plastics pollution in the ocean and one man’s quest to find the story behind thousand...

10.8 The Human Dimension

‘Waste’, ‘rubbish’, ‘trash’, are, sometimes literally, the ‘shitty’ side of the shiny consumption dream, the grubby end of the capitalist process that no one wants to recognise. Similarly, we don’t want to know the people who have to deal with our...

10.9 Waste Solutions: technological

In some ways technology is its own greatest enemy. Its very quickness, its shiny cleverness, its neat problem-solution dynamic is irresistible. It has solved, and at least can, ‘solve’, or contribute to, solutions to a whole range of world environ...

10.10 Solutions: other

Feeling a little flat about all things environment, the other week I was lucky enough to visit a nearby seaside town, Robe, and call in on Brad and Narelle at their little ‘factory’ out the back of town, called Transmutation. It has to be said tha...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

In a supposedly secular age there has arisen a global religion and god like never before, a religion whose reach and power makes every other belief system before it seem pitiful and insignificant: ...
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...