Impacts of Climate Change: What’s up with Wildfires?

By Summer Seligmann, C2ST Intern, Loyola University

2020 was a difficult year for everyone. The global pandemic altered life as we knew it, and the world around us felt like it was burning, and it was. Unfortunately, it seems that 2021 hasn’t been much different. Like the pandemic, wildfires have not gone away, and they probably won’t any time soon. There have been nearly 49,000 wildfires in 2021, for a total of 6.5 million acres burned. Although there have been fewer wildfires this year, scientists warn that the future will be much worse if we don’t act fast.

In September of 2020, 3.5 million acres of land were burned in wildfires. In total, 10.2 million acres were burned in more than 58,000 wildfires in 2020.  The acres that burned across the U.S. combined were bigger than the entire state of Maryland. This was a record high in the 21 years since data has been tracked and reported by federal wildfire agencies in the current reporting system. 22 climate disasters, three of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history, and 4% of the state of California burned – all in the year 2020.

A map showing wildfires
Wildfire Map

For decades, environmentalists cautioned about the effects climate change would have on the environment, but progress to reduce emissions was slow, and in some cases, there was outright denial that climate change was happening at all. Now that these changes can be seen all around the world, we can no longer ignore science. Studies have consistently shown that climate change is a result of human activity. Many factors contribute to climate change, but the culprit is the use of fossil fuels. When we burn fossil fuels, greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere) are released, causing our planet to warm. According to Nasa, 97% of climate scientists agree this to be true. There is, however, one aspect of climate change that has surprised scientists, and that is how quickly we have experienced the effects.

Increasing global temperatures is one result of climate change, but there are many others. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), climate change also causes higher sea levels, harms wildlife, disrupts food supplies, and changes weather patterns. Temperature increases from greenhouse gases affect our water cycle. Some places experience intense flooding, while others experience drought. The Western United States is one of the areas dealing with extreme droughts. 

A recent study from UCLA and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory explained that human activity influences the vapor pressure deficit, a measure of the difference between the moisture the air can hold when it is fully saturated and the current moisture in the air. Researchers found that from 1979 to 2020, global warming caused by humans was likely to have increased the vapor pressure deficit by 68%. Higher temperatures and minimal rainfall in the Southwest give a small fire exactly what it needs to burn millions of acres. All it takes is a strike of lightning or an unwatched campfire and an entire forest is in danger. Human-driven climate change resulting in wildfires is not a new finding, but this study at UCLA deepens our understanding of how humans are affecting the planet.

There has been a growing urgency to stop climate change and help reduce the number of fires in recent months. In September of this year, we saw a rampant fire in Sequoia National Park where more than 88,000 acres were burned. This park has millions of visitors each year, and as the fire came so close to burning down some of the world’s oldest trees, it showed people how serious the impacts of climate change are. Scientists predict that more extreme events like this will happen soon. The IPCC 2021 report stated that even if we significantly reduce CO2 emissions and other GHGs now, “it could take 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize”. We know the climate is changing, whether we’ve seen it on tv or witnessed it with our own eyes, and we cannot waste any more time. The time to change is now. 

This all might sound extremely doom and gloom, but there are steps we can take to make a difference. 

  • First, if you’re going camping or are near an area where the wildfire risk is high, make sure you’re practicing fire safety. This means building fires in an open area away from vegetation and other objects that could easily catch on fire. And when you’re ready to put your fire out, make sure it is fully extinguished before leaving. If you would like some more fire safety tips, you can check them out here
  • Second, reduce your water usage. Make sure your faucets and pipes are not leaking, take (shorter) showers instead of baths, and reduce the amount of water you use outside. Green grass is not meant for every environment, so research native plants and create your own sustainable landscape! Additionally, only water your lawn when necessary. Turn off those sprinklers (and stop putting them near the sidewalk, it’s wasteful and why are you watering the concrete anyways?). 
  • Another tip: If you water your lawn during the middle of the day, more water evaporates. Instead, you should water in the morning because the soil soaks it up best at this time. The best part about all of this is that it will reduce your water bill! 
  • Finally, contact your state and local representatives; officials are in office to listen to you. Call, email, or write letters to them and tell them the issues that are important to you. Note: Large-scale systems, such as industry, energy, transportation, and agriculture, are the main emitters of GHGs, thus significantly contributing to climate change. Meaningful global action must be taken to address these issues, but until then, we have to do our part and remember that change starts with us. 

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