Shall the Arctic Burn?

Human Wrongs Watch

Wildfires Becoming more Frequent and Intense - Shall the Arctic Burn? - Each year, between 2002 and 2016, an average of about 423 million hectares or 4.23 million square km of the Earth’s land surface – an area about the size of the entire European Union – burned. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS.

Each year, between 2002 and 2016, an average of about 423 million hectares or 4.23 million square km of the Earth’s land surface – an area about the size of the entire European Union – burned. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS.

“Even the Arctic, previously all but immune, faces rising wildfire risk,” experts on 23 February 2022 said ahead of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi.

The report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, finds an “elevated risk” even for the Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires.

The document was released before the resumed 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) convened in Nairobi, between 28 February and 2 March, 2022.

Dangerous wildfire weather projected to get worse

Another UNEP report, issued on 17 February 2022, warns that:

  • Each year, between 2002 and 2016, an average of about 423 million hectares or 4.23 million square km of the Earth’s land surface – an area about the size of the entire European Union – burned, becoming more common in mixed forest and savannah ecosystems. An estimated 67% of the annual global area burned by all types of fires, including wildfires, was on the African continent.
  • Dangerous wildfire weather conditions are projected to become more frequent and intense and to last longer, including in areas previously unaffected by fires.
  • Extremely intense wildfires can trigger thunderstorms in smoke flumes that aggravate fires through erratic wind speeds and generate lightning that ignites other fires far beyond the fire front, a hazardous feedback loop.
  • This is due to climate change, including hotter temperatures and drier conditions with more frequent droughts.
  • Land-use change is another risk factor, including commercial logging and deforestation for farms, grazing land, and expanding cities.
  • A further cause for the proliferation of wildfires is the aggressive suppression of natural fire, which is essential in some natural systems to limit the amounts of combustible material, and inappropriate fire management policies that exclude traditional fire management practices and indigenous knowledge.
  • Long-term effects on human health extend beyond those fighting wildfires, evacuated, or suffering losses. Smoke and particulate matter from wildfires deliver significant consequences for health in downwind settlements, sometimes thousands of kilometres from the source, with impacts often exacerbated among those with pre-existing illness, women, children, the elderly and the poor.
  • Changes in fire regimes are also expected to lead to massive biodiversity loss, endangering over 4,400 terrestrial and freshwater species.
  • Wildfires generate black carbon and other pollutants that can pollute water sources, enhance the melting of glaciers, cause landslides and large-scale algal blooms in oceans, and turn carbon sinks such as rainforests into carbon sources.

The report calls for greater investment in reducing the risks of wildfires; development of prevention and response management approaches that include vulnerable, rural, traditional and indigenous communities; and further refinements in remote sensing capabilities, such as satellites, radar and lightning detection.

More facts

The fast spread of wildfires has significant impacts on health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

  • An estimated 180 000 deaths every year are caused by burns – the vast majority occur in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Non-fatal burn injuries are a leading cause of morbidity.
  • Burns occur mainly in the home and workplace.
  • Burns are preventable.

A burn is an injury to the skin or other organic tissue primarily caused by heat or due to radiation, radioactivity, electricity, friction or contact with chemicals, explains WHO.

Thermal (heat) burns occur when some or all of the cells in the skin or other tissues are destroyed by:

  • hot liquids (scalds)
  • hot solids (contact burns), or
  • flames (flame burns).

The problem

Burns are a global public health problem, WHO reports. The majority of these occur in low- and middle-income countries and almost two thirds occur in the WHO African and South-East Asia regions.

Non-fatal burns are a leading cause of morbidity, including prolonged hospitalisation, disfigurement and disability, often with resulting stigma and rejection.

The world body adds that:

  • Burns are among the leading causes of disability-adjusted life-years lost in low- and middle-income countries.
  • In 2004, nearly 11 million people worldwide were burned severely enough to require medical attention.

Some country data

WHO provides some examples:

  • In India, over 1 000 000 people are moderately or severely burnt every year.
  • Nearly 173 000 Bangladeshi children are moderately or severely burnt every year.
  • In Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt and Pakistan, 17% of children with burns have a temporary disability and 18% have a permanent disability.
  • Burns are the second most common injury in rural Nepal, accounting for 5% of disabilities.
  • In 2008, over 410 000 burn injuries occurred in the United States of America, with approximately 40 000 requiring hospitalisation.

A fire-ready formula

The UNEP-GRID Arendal report calls on governments to adopt a new ‘Fire Ready Formula’, with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for response.

“Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than one percent.”

“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported”, said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.

“We have to minimise the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change”.

Wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations, UNEP-GRID Arendal experts warn.

Deepening social inequalities

With an impact that extends for days, weeks and even years after the flames subside, they impede progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals and deepen social inequalities:

  • People’s health is directly affected by inhaling wildfire smoke, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts and increased health effects for the most vulnerable;
  • The economic costs of rebuilding after areas are struck by wildfires can be beyond the means of low-income countries;
  • Watersheds are degraded by wildfires’ pollutants; they also can lead to soil erosion causing more problems for waterways;
  • Wastes left behind are often highly contaminated and require appropriate disposal.

“Wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating. Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons.”

Billions of animals wiped out

At the same time, adds the UNEP-GRID Arendal report, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.

“Wildlife and its natural habitats are rarely spared from wildfires, pushing some animal and plant species closer to extinction. A recent example is the Australian 2020 bushfires, which are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals.”

On this, the BBC in December 2021 reported that Brazil wildfires killed an estimated 17 million animals.

The UNEP-GRID Arendal report was commissioned in support of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The Decade (2021-2030) is a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature.


2022 Human Wrongs Watch

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