The Perpetual Threat of Firestorms
Will Ferguson, Manager of Medium, and Intern at We Grow Green Tech
The global threat of rising CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions has never been more apparent, than in our present generation. Causing a multitude of threats, from the acidification of our oceans, to the swift destruction of our natural environments. Becoming increasingly commonplace across the globe, our natural reserves and atmosphere are suffering more and more, with the passing of each event. As a result, this ruthlessly chokes our skies with molecular carbon particulates, such as PM 2.5 and PM 10, whilst simultaneously releasing volatile greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), the primary catalyst for the causation of acid rain as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), presenting dangers to the composition of our atmosphere and land surfaces, in addition to human health, and our respiratory systems.
The occurrence of wildfires have grown exponentially, over the last 20–30 years, with a marked increase in their frequency in areas such as the West coast of the U.S., with the states of Oregon and California being particularly at risk. The Eagle Creek Wildfire, near Cascade Locks, Oregon was initiated, after expanding to, in excess of 20,000 acres as of September 5th, 2017. Fire regime characteristics under the hottest and driest mid-century scenarios illustrate novel disturbance regimes which could result in permanent changes to forest structure and composition and the provision of ecosystem services. (McEvoy, et al, 2020) Furthermore, this caused widespread disruption to water supplies within the area, through contamination with ash particles from the resulting damage caused.
There have been noticeable trends with incidents worldwide, as climate change inevitably becomes more difficult to control. Wildfires in South-Eastern France are especially active because this region encompasses many fire conducive features: the Mediterranean climate characterized by long summer droughts and frequent strong winds (Curt, et al, 2011, cited in Lahaye, et al, unknown). As a result, these events are likely to increase in their severity, as Earth’s climate becomes increasingly unpredictable. Furthermore, the trend of increasing intensity in wildfire activity continues through forest fires in the Himalayan Province of Uttarakhand. However, this incident is quite paradoxical, for such an event to be sparked in a notoriously cold and mountainous region. More than 50% of Himalayan forests in Uttarakhand are prone to high incidence of fire, mostly due to human activities (Babu, et al, 2016). Immolating between 1,114 and 4,750 hectares of forest within multiple incidences between 1998 and 2012, this proves how this truly global phenomenon has forced humankind to reap the true damage of its actions.
However, the case of California represents a case witnessed from personal experience, as a wildfire followed my family and I, in our road-trip up the West Coast in the Summer of 2018. The Ferguson Fire was caused during this period, vastly impacting Yosemite National Park, and the state of California on a larger scale, in combination with other wildfire events ravaging the State across the season. Located in the Sierra National Forest and Stanislaus National Forest of Central California, the fire burned a total of 94,263 acres. At its peak ~3,000 people from many countries were assigned to fight the fire. There were a total of 2 fatalities and 19 injuries, with 10 structures destroyed (U.S. National Forest Service, 2018, cited in CSULB, 2018) Additionally, the Ferguson Fire, like several other Californian Wildfires in 2018, were visible not only to the world’s media, although also from low-Earth orbit, detailing the true scale of the damage caused. As a result of the extensive spread of the fire, this heavily impacted areas inside Yosemite National Park, resulting in an extensive closure, lasting several months until the blaze was fully contained. This affected highly-popular areas within the Park, such as Tioga Pass, Mariposa Grove and Tuolumne Meadows, impacting the landscape surrounding Yosemite to a major degree.
There have also been impacts observed around anthropogenic climate change here, and over the past 50 years. During 1972–2018, California experienced a fivefold increase in annual burned area, mainly due to more than an eightfold increase in summer forest‐fire extent. Increased summer forest‐fire area very likely occurred due to increased atmospheric aridity caused by warming. (Williams, et al, 2019) Consequently, this has elevated the core natural processes, vital to California’s diverse wildfire regimes, although has found that wildfire activity was promoted in many areas by reduced fuel moisture due to warming‐induced increases in evaporative demand, reduced snowpack, and reduced warm‐season precipitation frequency (Abatzoglou and Williams, 2017; Holden, et al, 2018; Kitzberger, et al, 2017; Westerling, 2016, cited in Williams, et al, 2019).
The concept of adaptive resilence to wildfires, as a means of mitigation, requires knowledge on the variation of fuels that are able to prime favourable conditions for these events. Fuel treatments, auch as the deliberate combustion of effective wildfire fuels, when implemented in a spatially strategic manner, can help to decrease fire intensity and severity and improve forest resilience to fire, insects, and drought. Where fuel treatments are less effective (wetter, high-elevation, and coastal forests), managers may consider implementing fuel breaks around high-value resources (Halofsky, et al, 2020).
However, somewhat dwarfing these disasters, are firestorms.
Firestorms are conflagrations maintained at such an intense level, they have the capability to generate their own wind columns, increasing the intensity of thermal energy rising to the atmosphere, and simultaneously accelerating the spread of an already ferocious wildfire. There have been several occurrences where a highly unstable wildfire has accumulated high thermal potential, thus allowing for a higher destructive capacity. The 2009 Victorian Firestorm resulted in the worst loss of life from any recorded Australian bushfires, with an estimated 400 wildfires being recorded across Victoria (ADR, 2009), and is just one example of how wildfires will become more intense, as climate change grows as a global threat. These are perpetuated through the lack of awareness of the scale of this international crisis, which will not only impact our atmosphere, but also disrupts other natural surface processes, such as the extent of Polar snow cover and sea-level rise, which in turn, are worsened through anthropogenic contributions.
The consequences wrought through human contributions to the current state of the climate have been recognised as monumental, by scientific communities worldwide, and is now something that cannot be ignored. The anthropogenic impacts leading to a significantly warmer atmosphere, stems from the mentality of a consumerist culture, driven primarily by rogue agendas of capitalism, leading to highly unsustainable production of disposable goods in Far Eastern nations. Through the continued operation of society in such a way, this will drastically alter the quality of our atmosphere, thus creating negative effects on human health, ecosystems and our natural environment. Furthermore, this will inevitably heighten the occurrence of wildfires elsewhere across the globe, as global warming increases surface temperatures in areas with already fragile ecosystems and landscapes, therefore forming a destructive loop of positive feedback to further choke our skies.
The threat posed to the biodiversity of Earth’s unique biomes is also at stake as this self-perpetuating loop fuels a continual decrease in surface albedo feedbacks, thus allowing for higher quantities of short-wave radiation to cause an imbalance across these habitats. There is also potential for ocean surface temperature and pH to become destabilised, which has had a particular impact upon ecosystems of freshwater fish, in recent years. It has called on the government to restore freshwater habitats to good health through proper enforcement of existing laws, strengthening protections in the Environment Bill (Briggs, 2021), thus allowing for significantly less damage through future use of Earth’s rivers. Moreover, in recent years, there has been a direct threat to Yellowstone National Park, recognised as a space of international importance for tourism and research alike. Through a Park-wide decline in populations of cut-throat trout, a species native to the ideal spawning grounds of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone Lake and the Park as a whole, this could have impacts, highly suggestive of links to indirect climate change, on other species, thereby placing it’s biodiversity at a grave risk. River otters in the Yellowstone Lake ecosystem appear to be relatively restricted in their diet and are heavily dependent on cutthroat trout. Our findings suggest that continued declines in the cutthroat trout population could negatively impact otters, potentially disrupting their role in linking aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in and around Yellowstone Lake. (Crait and Ben-David, 2006)
Corporations are also becoming increasingly likely to abuse our natural forests, through deforestation and the clearance of forest through ‘slash and burn’ techniques, thus contributing to the climate crisis and so, the frequency of more intense wildfires and firestorms. To further this catastrophe, areas of cleared virgin forest are likely to be converted to support a monoculture plantation, such as that of palm oil; know to be a crucial culprit in furthering damage to key areas of Earth responsible for changes to our climate. From the perspective of a local scale, the incremental wastage of food, can accumulate over long stretches of time, resulting in terrifying impacts for the health of our atmosphere, when combined with the output of modern, anthropocentric industrialisation.
It is clear to see that the growing threat of wildfires, and more commonly, intense firestorms are ravaging our planet, now more than ever before. The perpetual threat of these may be envisioned to become the default threat of this kind, due to the ever-increasing threat of climate change. In consequence, this will form a vicious loop of positive feedback within our atmosphere, and thus the Earth’s carbon cycle, set to destabilise other planetary systems if this is not addressed in the capacity that is necessary, nor in the short window of opportunity we have.
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