Causes And Consequences Of Forest Fires
Forest fires are one of the most hotly discussed topics within the current decade concerning forestry. The topic of forest fires can be divided into two categories, natural forest fires, and those that are a direct or indirect consequence of human activity. The latter category can be further divided into controlled burning (e.g. land clearance for agriculture) and accidental (e.g. negligence or carelessness), this essay will focus largely upon harmful fires that are the consequences of human activity.
Forest fires of either kind tend to have a net effect upon the environment, effecting land suitability for future forests (for better and worse), affecting carbon sequestration capabilities, the ability to alleviate flooding and can often result in a loss of biodiversity within the forest area (and, in some cases, globally). Throughout this essay, consideration will be made as to why forest fires are the most important issue of the decade that forestry faces.
What are we losing?
The extremes to which forest fires have reached in recent years can be considered to be consequences of climate change and mass deforestation for agriculture. 4.5 million fires larger than 1km2 were recorded worldwide in 2019 by Global Forest Watch Fires, an increase in 400,000 from 2018, approximately 96% of forest fires are caused by humans. Forest fires have a huge impact on ecological, social and economic wellbeing, with “more than 25% of the world’s population” having reliance upon forest resources, unchecked forest fires could potentially have a devastating effect, not only on an environmental level, but also upon ecosystem services.
Climate change feedback loop
As a result of climate change, forests become drier, more flammable, contribute CO2 to the atmosphere when burnt and therefore further raise global temperatures, this is a cyclical process, exacerbating the situation. Ecosystems are disrupted by the varying impacts of climate change, fluctuations in weather patterns, droughts, storms, and extreme temperatures. Fires started with the intention of clearing land for agricultural purposes can often get out of hand and develop into larger fires, growing in size due to weather conditions resulting from climate change such as “drought and strong winds” as (…) explains in (…).
Another area of discussion as to why forest fires are one of the most important factors of the decade is the output of carbon that occurs when areas of forestry are burnt, negating the tree’s ability of carbon sequestration. Forests are “important regulators of the global climate”, the tree’s natural ability to store carbon is a great way to combat climate change, forests naturally take up around a third of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. However, when a tree is burnt, it releases the stored carbon back into the atmosphere, as evident in Figure 1, scientists estimate that wildfires emitted about “8 billion tons of CO2 per year for the past 20 years”.
Under ideal conditions, forests undergo evapotranspiration, producing “self-sustaining rainfall”. Evapotranspiration is diminished when forest is cleared and used for agricultural purposes, rainfall, therefore, decreases when considerable areas of forestry are lost, the flammability of these areas thus increases. Consequently, it becomes harder for regeneration to occur in these areas and biodiversity suffers (et.al. Staal).
Further affecting the loss of native biodiversity is the introduction of non-native invasive plants. Invasive species can have different properties to native species, causing fires to burn with different characteristics, which may, in turn, benefit the invasive species and may present difficulties in returning the land to the preinvasive state, inhibiting forest regeneration, due to the change in suitability for tree growth following fires, resulting in an “a nonforested state” , potentially diminishing the ability of forested areas to cope with flooding.
Forest fires not only effect biodiversity on a global scale due to the aforementioned contributions to global warming adding to changes in biodiversity but also on a local level. Forest fires “lead to change in biomass stocks”, in addition to this, smoke can have negative effects upon the “health of humans and animals”. Smoke from fires can also reduce the photosynthetic capabilities of forests (Davies and Unam, 1999)
Social media has a huge role to play in forest fires becoming one of the biggest issues of the decade in forestry. People are more aware, with a growing interest in the environment and climate change, the ease of accessibility to information is incredible, due to this, contentious issues such as the intentional burning of forests for agricultural purposes in places such as the Amazon can spread like wild fire across social media. However, social media tends to only focus on certain issues such as the fires that spread across Australia, the USA and the Brazilian Amazon throughout 2019, but very little was seen on social media regarding fires that rage in Canada, Russia and Bolivia, these fires “hardly receive any attention”.
The events of the previous decade could be considered an indication of how the most important role of the current decade within forestry is likely to be forest fires. In an anthropocentric view, protecting forests from largescale, harmful fires provides ecosystem services such as flood protection and providing jobs in many industries while also benefitting biodiversity. With the continuation of global warming, forests become more susceptible to forest fires, monitoring these fires can provide data that may help with protecting forestry from fire and slowing global warming. Furthermore, we may see a trend in the amount of forest fires with regard to the current levels of management (and therefore less enforcement) during the current global pandemic, which may result in an increase in the amount of fires we see.