I’m sure you’ve heard by now that climate change is making wildfires worse. Large areas of forested land subjected to drought conditions are dry and brittle. Average wind speeds are increasing around the globe. And the number of storms that produce lightning strikes also seems to be increasing. The impact of this triple threat can be seen most in the western United States and across Canada.
The slideshow has two images you can toggle between for comparison. They both show the same area in Quebec, which has been contending with an unprecedented number of wildfires this year. This NOAA satellite view shows a massive lightning storm in the first slide, and in the second slide 24 hours later you can see numerous wildfires that were ignited by that lightning.
Truth be told, lightning causes only a small percentage of wildfires in the US. Here’s what the stats look like for a small range of years, but it holds pretty consistent over time. But the recent increase in lightning-caused fires in recent years has moved that category from 1.8% to over 10%.
Because lightning strikes often occur in remote rugged areas, it’s difficult to get manpower and equipment in to suppress those fires. Dropping water from the air can help, but is never a full solution. Some wilderness fires occur too far from airports and/or water sources for air drops to be a viable option. Note this is data for the US. Globally, lightning causes around 12% of wildfires.
Ironically, the increased severity of wildfires has a detrimental feedback effect on global warming. Scientists estimate 1.76 billion tons of CO2 was released from burning forests in North America and Eurasia in 2021. That’s a significant fraction of the global CO2 emissions total, which for that same year was 37 billion tons. And wildfires are happening in the southern hemisphere as well, but (except for those in the Amazon) they tend to get less media coverage.
Trees store a lot of carbon, and when they burn or decay, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. When wooden structures burn the same thing happens. This increases global warming, leading us back to the triple threat explained in the first paragraph. And so (unfortunately) it goes.
One final note: Contrary to what you may have heard, there is no evidence that satellites operated by secret elite organizations are starting wildfires intentionally by firing laser beams down from space. 🙂
Next Week in Sky Lights ⇒ Light and Shadow on Mars