World lost three Central Parks of forest to wildfire every hour in 2021

Most of the fires burned in the far northern boreal forests — which could create a dangerous feedback loop that fuels even more planetary warming

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Wednesday 17 August 2022 17:08 BST
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Last year, wildfires ripped through forests around the world, turning verdant landscapes into burn scars and displacing both people and wildlife.

A new analysis shows that nearly 36,000 square miles of forest worldwide were lost to fires in 2021 — the equivalent of about three times New York City’s Central Park every single hour.

That’s the second-fastest rate of forest loss to fires in the past 20 years, and a new signal of the havoc the climate crisis is wreaking on ecosystems and livelihoods.

New data from Global Forest Watch shows the extent of fire damage in forests last year – in total, fires contributed over a third of all tree cover loss documented in 2021, according to the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI), which organizes the Global Forest Watch data.

But while all different kinds of forests, from rainforests to mountains, saw blazes, the boreal forest — the far northern forests characteristic of parts of Alaska, Canada and Russia — was the clear leader. Over 25,000 square miles of boreal forest burned last year, the highest amount in at least the past 20 years.

Much of that loss, a full 20,000 square miles, was in Russia. Parts of Siberia saw intense fires last summer, spurred in part by intense heatwaves in the region made possible by rising planetary temperatures, notes WRI.

Parts of the boreal forest have been burning this year too, with massive fires recorded in Russia and Alaska. Alaska is actually experiencing one of its worst fire seasons in years, with millions of acres burned.

In addition to being spurred on by the climate crisis, these blazes can also fuel further climate crisis.

As the wildfires burn, they release tons of carbon from trees and soil back into the atmosphere — where it can help warm up the planet even more. Fires in boreal forests are particularly concerning, WRI notes, because they have a lot of carbon stored in their soils, potentially creating a dangerous feedback loop of warming.

In addition to the far northern regions, fires destroyed forests in tropical, subtropical and temperate areas as well. In particular, more than 4,200 square miles — three-and-a-half times the size of Yosemite National Park — burned in tropical forests last year.

Fires are a natural part of many landscapes, often started by lightning. Many ecosystems even rely on fires to periodically clean out dead trees and other piled-up vegetation, clearing the way for new seeds to sprout.

But as the climate crisis has pushed the planet outside of its normal operating parameters, fires have taken on a new ferocity. Higher temperatures and more intense drought — both of which are spurred on by a hotter world — can fuel more intense fires, with occasionally devastating consequences.

People can also start wildfires, some of which can spread out of control when they hit drier landscapes. In the tropics, WRI notes, most fires are started by people, sometimes escaping from flames used to clear areas that have already been cut down.

But the growing climate emergency is a main concern for many forest watchers. By 2050, the number of wildfires worldwide could rise by 30 per cent, according to a United Nations report from earlier this year. And all those fires will come with significant consequences.

In addition to exacerbating the very same climate crisis that’s helping to spur them, the blazes can destroy communities and ecosystems. Smoke from wildfires is a significant public health risk, worsening medical issues like respiratory diseases.

And after a fire has died down, the remaining landscape can be extremely susceptible to erosion and flooding, raising the risk of landslides and even water contamination as dirt flows into watersheds.

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