Unprecedented Wildfires in 2020 are Connected to Climate Change

The intense wildfires that raged across the Western U.S., South America, and Australia in 2020 are being attributed to climate change. What makes these fires unprecedented is their size and duration.  There is growing evidence that these increasingly intense fires could eradicate some species of floral and fauna.  Across the American west, fire seasons are now 78 days longer than they were in the 1970s. 

According to the National Interagency Fire Center as of the beginning of December, there have been 52,934 wildfires in the U.S. that have burned 14,905 square miles this year making 2020 the second-largest area burned in the past decade. The 2020 fire season in California was one of the most destructive in recorded history. Five of the six largest wildfires in the state’s history happened in 2020. Overall, 9,639 wildfires consumed more than 6,527 square miles this year in the state. The fires killed 33 people and destroyed or damaged more than 10,000 structures. 

Like California, Colorado is suffering from decreased precipitation, increased heat and drought and in 2020 this helped to spawn three of the largest wildfires in the state’s history. These long burning fires forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate and they consuming 624,000 acres in the state, killing at least two people, destroying more than 550 structures, and causing around $200 million in damages. “From all recent observations we have of wildlife seasons, this one is off the charts,” said Becky Bollinger, assistant state climatologist and drought specialist at Colorado State University.  Oregon saw nine people killed and over 4,000 homes destroyed as 1,908 square miles burned in more than 2,000 wildfires. 

As reported by Scientific American, a total of 3.2 million hectares or 22 percent of South America’s Pantanal region has burned this year. That is an area twice the size of the California’s wildfires. The vast floodplain is located in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, and it is the world’s largest tropical wetland. This area is home to Indigenous people and a high concentration of rare or endangered species. “It’s apocalyptic,” says Luciana Leite, who studies humanity’s relationship with nature at the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil. “It is a tragedy of colossal proportions.” The Pantanal is facing its worst drought in 47 years and many predict that it will get worse. Climate modelling indicates that the Pantanal could become hotter and drier, with a rise in temperature of up to 7 ºC by the end of the century. Unpublished data from Diele-Vegas suggest that if current trends persist, by 2050 the annual mean temperatures in the Pantanal could increase by 10.5 percent, and the annual volume of rain could decrease by 3 percent. “If climate trends, land-management trends and the current anti-environment politics persist,” says Leite, “the Pantanal as we know it will cease to exist.”

Australia also suffered through unprecedented wildfires in 2019 and 2020. Increased heat contributed to the burning of more than 93,000 square miles, at least 33 deaths and $7.3 billion worth of damage. Billions of animals were killed or displaced, and the fires may have increased the risk of extinction of some species. A study conducted by the World Weather Attribution group published in March found that climate change made the wildfires at least 30 percent more likely to occur. “Although fires are natural in Australia, they’re now occurring at an unprecedented frequency and intensity in areas that, historically, did not burn.” 

These fires are due to the interconnection between warmer temperatures, drier vegetation and drought. As quoted by Weather.com, scientist Zeke Hausfather, said climate change is driving the trend of bigger fires. Hausfather explained that “our typical fire today burns about five times more area than it burned in the 1980s.” Another climate scientist by the name of Noah Diffenbaugh, said, “With respect to climate change, the area burned in the Western U.S. has increased around tenfold over the past four decades…Careful study shows that about half of that increase in area burned is attributable to long-term warming via the effect of that warming on the fuel aridity.” According to research conducted by Diffenbaugh and his colleagues, the frequency of extreme wildfire weather in California has more than doubled in the last four decades. 

Both Hausfather and Diffenbaugh expect that this trend will continue and unless we curtail GHG emissions the situation will get much worse. There is increasing scientific consensus that wildfires could trigger a collapse of existing flora, making these areas even more susceptible to fires, and causing permanent ecosystem changes.

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