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New Research Confirms Role of Climate Change in Forest Wildfires

According to a research review on wildfire and global climate change risk published recently, climate change caused by humans supports conditions that lead to wildfires, thereby increasing their chances of occurrence.



Image Credit: Christian Roberts-Olsen/

In light of the Australian fires, researchers from the Met Office Hadley Centre, the University of East Anglia (UEA), Imperial College London, and the University of Exeter have carried out a Rapid Response Review of 57 peer-reviewed papers that have been published since the Fifth Assessment Report issued by IPCC in 2013.

The entire studies demonstrate connections between climate change and increased severity or frequency of fire weather. These periods carry a high risk of fire because of a combination of low rainfall, low humidity, high temperatures, and frequent high winds, although anomalies have been observed in certain regions.

Some regions experience increasing global temperatures, more frequent heat waves, and the accompanying droughts that increase the chance of wildfires by triggering both hot and dry conditions and thus encouraging fire weather. Such conditions can be utilized as an overall measure of the effect of climate change on the risk of fires taking place.

Observational information demonstrates that fire weather seasons have extended across almost 25% of the vegetated surface of the Earth, leading to an increase of about 20% in the global mean length of the fire weather season.

The new online platform was used to perform the literature review. It was established by UEA and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Written by researchers, the ScienceBrief literature aims to keep up with science and share scientific knowledge with the world, by decoding peer-reviewed publications in a fast and transparent manner.

Overall, the 57 papers reviewed clearly show human-induced warming has already led to a global increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather, increasing the risks of wildfire. This has been seen in many regions, including the western US and Canada, southern Europe, Scandinavia and Amazonia. Human-induced warming is also increasing fire risks in other regions, including Siberia and Australia.

Dr Matthew Jones, Senior Research Associate, Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia

Jones continued, “However, there is also evidence that humans have significant potential to control how this fire risk translates into fire activity, in particular through land management decisions and ignition sources.”

At the universal scale, burnt regions have reduced in recent years, mostly because of the clearing of savannahs for increased fire suppression as well as agriculture. On the contrary, burnt regions have increased in closed-canopy forests, probably in reaction to the double pressures of forest degradation and climate change.

Fire weather does occur naturally but is becoming more severe and widespread due to climate change. Limiting global warming to well below 2? C would help avoid further increases in the risk of extreme fire weather.

Richard Betts, Study Co-Author and Professor, Head of Climate Impacts Research, Met Office Hadley Centre and University of Exeter

Wildfires can’t be prevented, and the risks are increasing because of climate change. This makes it urgent to consider ways of reducing the risks to people. Land planning should take the increasing risk in fire weather into account,” added Iain Colin Prentice, professor and co-author of the study.

Prentice is also the Chair of Biosphere and Climate Impacts, Imperial College London and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society, Imperial College London.

The Rapid Response Review has been published in ScienceBrief.

This review is the first to utilize the ScienceBrief resource, with additional work scheduled on regions associated with climate change science and its effects in the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference—COP26—in November 2020.


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