Wildfires, Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events

by Daniel Brouse and Sidd Mukherjee
February 11, 2024

About the 2023 wildfires in Hawaii, Governor Josh Green said, "For perspective, we've had six fire emergencies this August, we had six fire emergencies between 1953 and 2003. That's how- how fast things are changing. I know that there is debate out there whether we should be talking about climate change or not. Well, let's be real world, climate change is here we are in the midst of it with a hotter planet, and fiercer storms."

Climate change is contributing to the increased intensity and frequency of wildfires through a combination of factors that create favorable conditions for wildfires to ignite, spread, and become more destructive. Here are some key ways in which climate change influences wildfires:

  1. Higher Temperatures:
    • Impact: Rising global temperatures increase the likelihood of extreme heat events.
    • Effect on Wildfires: Higher temperatures contribute to drier conditions, leading to increased evaporation and moisture loss from vegetation. Dry and hot conditions provide a more conducive environment for wildfires to ignite and spread.
  2. Drought Conditions:
    • Impact: Changes in precipitation patterns and prolonged droughts are linked to climate change.
    • Effect on Wildfires: Drought conditions result in dry vegetation, making it more susceptible to ignition. Reduced soil moisture levels also contribute to the flammability of ecosystems.
  3. Changing Rainfall Patterns:
    • Impact: Climate change alters regional rainfall patterns, leading to more intense rainfall in some areas and prolonged dry spells in others.
    • Effect on Wildfires: Areas experiencing reduced rainfall may face prolonged dry seasons, creating conditions favorable for wildfires. Intense rainfall in certain regions can lead to the growth of vegetation, which later dries out and becomes potential fuel for fires.
  4. Warming Winters:
    • Impact: Warmer winter temperatures can affect snowpack and contribute to earlier snowmelt.
    • Effect on Wildfires: Reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt can result in drier soil and vegetation earlier in the year, extending the wildfire season and increasing the period of vulnerability to fire ignition.
  5. Extended Fire Season:
    • Impact: Changes in climate contribute to longer and more intense fire seasons.
    • Effect on Wildfires: A longer fire season means that conditions conducive to wildfires persist for a more extended period, increasing the likelihood of ignition and the potential for wildfires to become larger and more destructive.
  6. Insect Infestations:
    • Impact: Warmer temperatures allow for the proliferation of certain insects, such as bark beetles.
    • Effect on Wildfires: Insect-infested trees become more susceptible to disease and wildfire. Dead and dry trees contribute to the fuel load, increasing the intensity and spread of wildfires.
  7. Wind Patterns:
    • Impact: Changes in climate can influence wind patterns.
    • Effect on Wildfires: Changes in wind patterns can contribute to the rapid spread of wildfires. Strong winds can carry embers over long distances, leading to the ignition of new areas.
  8. Thawing Permafrost:
    • Impact: Warming temperatures contribute to the thawing of permafrost.
    • Effect on Wildfires: Thawing permafrost releases stored carbon, creating flammable conditions. It can also lead to changes in vegetation types, altering fuel availability for wildfires.

The combination of these factors creates a feedback loops, where more intense and frequent wildfires release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to further climate change. This cycle reinforces the importance of addressing both the causes and consequences of climate change to mitigate the impact on wildfire risk. While the beautiful sunsets during forest fires create captivating visuals, it's essential to recognize the environmental and health impacts associated with wildfires. Wildfires can cause significant damage to ecosystems, contribute to air pollution, and pose risks to human health. The mesmerizing sunsets are a visible reminder of the interconnectedness of atmospheric processes and the far-reaching effects of natural events like wildfires.

In addition to the carbon feedback loop (the carbon emissions of Canada's fires outweighed the combined emissions from its oil and gas, transport and agriculture sectors), the fires also cause the melting of the permafrost and zombie fires to burn in the permafrost. The permafrost collapse is a self-sustaining feedback loop/tipping point. As the permafrost melts, the peatlands emit CO2 and methane. The increase in CO2 and methane results in more warming that results in more peatland emissions. A third feedback loop is created with lightning strikes. The study Forests at Risk Due to Lightning Fires found a sensitivity of extratropical intact forests to potential increases in lightning fires, which would have far-reaching consequences for terrestrial carbon storage and biodiversity. The results show that, on a global scale, lightning is the primary ignition source of fires in temperate and boreal forests. Global warming causes more extreme weather events and conditions for lightning creating more forest fires that create more warming and more lightning strikes.

The study Wildfire as a major driver of recent permafrost thaw in boreal peatlands published in the Journal Nature Communications found wildfires have caused a quarter of permafrost thaw (2,000 square kilometres) in Western Canada's boreal peatlands over the past 30 years. "Historically, permafrost in this area underwent a natural cycle of thawing and reforming, but given current climate conditions and projections for the future, this fire-induced thaw appears to be irreversible," said Carolyn Gibson, who conducted the research.

On January 1, 2024, the article, Why Are Alaska's Rivers Turning Orange?, was published in Scientific America. "Streams in Alaska are turning orange with iron and sulfuric acid. Scientists who have studied these rusting rivers agree that the ultimate cause is climate change. Kobuk Valley National Park has warmed by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.32 degrees Fahrenheit) since 2006 and could get another 10.2 degrees C hotter by 2100, a greater increase than projected for any other national park. The heat may already have begun to thaw 40 percent of the park's permafrost, the layer of earth just under the topsoil that normally remains frozen year-round. McPhee wanted to protect the Salmon River because humans had 'not yet begun to change it.' Now, less than 50 years later, we have done just that. The last great wilderness in America, which by law is supposed to be 'untrammeled by man,' is being trammeled from afar by our global emissions."

NASA reported: Wildland fire experts have described Canada's 2023 fire season as record-breaking and shocking. Over the course of a fire season that started early and ended late, blazes have burned an estimated 18.4 million hectares. Hundreds of fires exceeded 10,000 hectares (39 square miles), large enough to be considered "megafires." These megafires were also unusually widespread this season, charring forests from British Columbia and Alberta in the west to Quebec and the Atlantic provinces in the east to the Northwest Territories and the Yukon in the north.

Though the rate of change in climate disasters' intensity, duration, and likelihood vary according to the type of extreme weather, a "rule-of-thumb" can be derived from the Canada wildfires of 2023. The World Weather Attribution Organization found, "Climate change made the cumulative severity of Quebec's 2023 fire season to the end of July around 50% more intense, and seasons of this severity at least seven times more likely to occur."

50% more intense
7 x more likely

Sidd said, "Do you remember back in the early 2000's when we thought we wouldn't live to see the extreme changes due to global warming?"

Daniel replied, "I think 2023 is the most significant year so far. We saw confirmation of tipping points being crossed for Mountain Glacier Loss, Greenland Ice Sheet Collapse, Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse, and potentially the Collapse of AMOC."

Sidd continued, "We already knew that. It was Canada catching on fire that I could not believe. I never thought I'd live to see the day."

Daniel asked, "Do you think the permafrost and peatlands will have zombie fires and cause the permafrost tipping point?"

Sidd responded, "Yes. They are gone, too. We already know from the permafrost peatland fires in Siberia."

Daniel ponders, "Hmmmm... I guess that means my plan went up in smoke? My worst case scenario / last resort emergency plan was to escape to Canada."

How is All Real Estate at Risk From Climate Change? Brouse and Mukherjee (2024)
The Long-term Breathing Experiment / Brouse (2023)
Health Impacts of Air Pollution / Brouse (2023)
Climate Change: Rate of Acceleration / Brouse and Mukherjee (2023)
Toppled Tipping Points: The Domino Effect / Brouse and Mukherjee (2023)
Tree Extinction Due to Human Induced Environmental Stress / Mukherjee and Brouse (2005)
Soil Degradation and Desertification / Brouse (2024)
Create a Climate-Resilient Environment in and Around Your Home / Brouse (2024)

The Human Induced Climate Change Experiment

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