A minimum of 112 individuals have lost their lives due to wildfires in central Chile, prompting the country’s president to announce two days of national mourning. This tragedy follows Colombia’s declaration of a state of emergency due to wildfires. Experts claim that the effects of climate change are increasing the occurrence of heat waves and drought in South America, which in turn contribute to the spread of wildfires by depleting the moisture from plants that fuel the fires.
What is currently occurring in Chile?
In Chile, the recent fires were caused by a period of unusually high temperatures in the capital city of Santiago, reaching up to 37 degrees Celsius (approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat has dried out wood, making it highly flammable and causing fires to spread quickly and with greater intensity. Even a slight increase in temperature can have a significant impact on the severity of a fire season.
According to Edward Mitchard, a forest specialist from the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, global warming causes an increase in temperature, resulting in increased water evaporation from plants and drier soils.
According to him, just a few days of extremely dry and hot conditions are enough for leaves to become brittle and parched. This creates highly combustible fuel that burns easily and sustains fires for a longer period of time. Additionally, drier soil intensifies the heat of the fires.
According to a study published in Nature, the length of fire seasons has increased by an average of 18.7% due to the effects of climate change. This extended time frame provides more opportunities for devastating fires to occur.
What is the significance of global weather patterns?
The growing frequency of droughts caused by disruptions in global rainfall patterns can result in entire regions becoming abnormally dry and at a higher risk for fires.
Mitchard stated that there has been an increase in droughts due to climate change, particularly in South America this year.
The Amazon basin has experienced the most severe drought on record. This leads to decreased rainfall in the southern region of South America as well.
Last year, Chile experienced heavy rainfall that is believed to have resulted in the growth of brush, which serves as ideal fuel for fires.
Additionally, the El Niño weather pattern has occurred, which is a natural and cyclical phenomenon that causes the surface waters in the Pacific to warm up and impact weather patterns worldwide. In South America, this has resulted in higher temperatures and dry conditions this year.
According to Mitchard, the likelihood of stronger El Niños is increased by climate change and droughts caused by it are expected to be more severe. Recently, the government of Colombia declared a state of emergency due to numerous wildfires linked to this weather pattern.
Moreover, the substantial quantity of carbon that is emitted through forest fires contributes to the escalation of global warming.
Is the severity of forest fires increasing?
According to satellite data analyzed by the World Resources Institute, wildfires currently consume approximately 11,500 square miles (30,000 square kilometers) of forest per year. This is equivalent to the size of Belgium and is twice the amount compared to 20 years ago.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, human-caused global warming has led to a fivefold increase in extreme heat waves worldwide. As a result, fire seasons are experiencing higher temperatures and drier conditions, creating the perfect environment for forest fires to occur.
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