A new study published on 2 October in Nature Communications shows that anthropogenic warming will increase the burned areas due to fires in Mediterranean Europe (1). However, the findings suggest this could be reduced by limiting global warming to 1.5 ºC. The results show, “The higher the warming level is, the larger is the increase of burned area, ranging from ~40 to ~100 per cent across the scenarios” and the results indicate that significant benefits could be achieved by limiting warming to well below 2 °C.
Research efforts to date have mainly focused on the effects of global warming and climate extremes on agriculture, power generation, ecosystems, and hydrology and until now, the impact on future wildfires has not been studied. Wildfires were unusually rampant across Europe in 2017 and 2018, particularly in Greece, Portugal and Sweden, as a result of intense droughts and heatwaves, and have resulted in economic and ecological losses, damage to infrastructure, as well as human casualties.
Europe is set ablaze every summer, particularly around the Mediterranean region, with on average of 2400 square kilometres of damage every year. However, the frequency, intensity, and extent of these wildfires have changed dramatically. The fires that raged across Europe this past summer have been the deadliest since 1900. Moreover, fires are now occurring in countries where they were not so common in the past.
The research team, led by Prof Carme Llasat from the University of Barcelona, used a series of regional climate models to predict burned areas across Mediterranean Europe, taking into account changes due to different scenarios such as drought. The findings indicate that a 1.5 º C increase in the average global temperature could increase burned areas by up to 40 per cent, mainly in the Iberian Peninsula, compared projections that do not take into account future warming.
The authors conclude that “the projected increase in drought conditions leads to larger burned area values and that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C can strongly reduce the increase of burned area,” and also write that “the nature of the fire-climate links may change over time and relatively small variations in future climates could lead to drastic shifts in fire activity.” This means that wildfires are more likely to happen in the future and to burn more destructively, which can now be attributed, at least partly, to human-induced climate change. According to the authors, the results support the Paris Agreement’s report that limiting a temperature increase to 1.5 °C would “significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
The findings further suggest current management strategies are not sufficient and that climate-fire models combined with seasonal climate forecasts are crucial to identifying new prevention strategies and offer the opportunity to prevent and reduce the impact of fires associated with adverse climate conditions. They write, “keeping fire management actions at the current level might not be sufficient to balance a future increase in droughts,” adding that “the ability to model the link between climate and fire is crucial to identifying key actions in adaptation strategies.”
(1) Turco, M. et al. Exacerbated fires in Mediterranean Europe due to anthropogenic warming projected with non-stationary climate-fire models. Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06358-z