The equivalent of around 16 football pitches of trees per minute were lost in the 2021 wildfires, a new report has revealed.
Data from the Global Forest Watch initiative suggests that, around the world, the number of trees that are burning has almost doubled in the last 20 years.
The climate change it is a key factor in this increase, since it generates higher temperatures and drier conditions.
Of the 9 million hectares of trees consumed by fire in 2021, more than 5 million were in Russia.
The new data allows researchers to distinguish between trees lost to fires and those destroyed by agriculture, logging or during intentional burns.
“More frequent and severe”
In 2021, the second worst year on record for fires, an area of the Portuguese size.
“It’s amazing,” says James MacCarthy, an analyst at Global Forest Watch.
“It is about double what it was just 20 years ago. It’s amazing how much fire activity has increased in such a short time.”
The impacts of fire-related losses are felt primarily in the forests of the northernmost countries, like Canada and Russia.
While fire has long been a natural part of how these forests function, the scale of destruction seen in Russia in 2021 was unprecedented.
Of the 9.3 million hectares burned worldwide, Russia accounted for more than half.
“The most worrying thing is that the fires are becoming more and more frequent, more severe and they have the potential to unlock a large amount of carbon stored in soils,” MacCarthy noted.
Trees and soils store carbon dioxide, one of the key gases that warms our atmosphere, and experts say they are crucial in tackling climate change.
Climate change is considered a key driver of these fires, as rising temperatures create drier conditions in which more trees burn.
The northern regions of the world are warming at a faster paceleading to longer fire seasons.
In Russia, the 31% increase in fire losses in 2021 was due in part to prolonged heat waves that experts say would have been virtually impossible without human-induced warming.
“Climate change is increasing the risk of more intense, faster and larger fires,” explained Doug Morton, head of NASA’s Biospheric Sciences Laboratory.
“And that’s most visible in forests where you have a lot of fuel to burn.”
In other parts of the world, the impact of deforestation is also causing more fires.
In the Brazilian Amazon, which recently saw the number of felled trees reach a six-year high, losses due to logging and farming are taking a Domino effect.
“Deforestation changes local and regional climates and removes much of the evapotranspiration that helps keep temperatures lower and wetter,” MacCarthy noted.
“So cutting down these forests actually makes them hotter and drier, and more prone to fire.”
While many of the trees that are burned will grow back within approximately 100 years, there are significant associated impacts of these losses on biodiversity, water quality and soil erosion.
The UN says the prospects for wildfires in the coming decades are bleak. A is expected 50% increase in extreme fires by the end of this century.
To tackle this problem, scientists say deep and rapid reductions in global carbon emissions are key.
World leaders at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, UK, last year pledged to end deforestation, but the promise must be kept if a difference is to be made.
More focus is still needed on prevention of forest fires, instead of fighting them, according to MacCarthy.
“About 50% of national fire budgets are for fire response and less than 1% is really for preparedness and planning,” he says.
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