The frequency and intensity of severe wildfires have doubled in the past 20 years

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This article Republished from Conversation under a Creative Commons License.

It seems we are getting used to fires on Earth. Recently, Greece had more than 70 wildfires burning simultaneously. In early 2024, Chile suffered its worst wildfire season in history, killing more than 130 people. Last year, Canada had record-breaking wildfires from March to November, and in August, flames ravaged the island of Maui in Hawaii. And the list goes on.

Watching the news makes it seem like catastrophic wildfires happen all the time, and unfortunately that sentiment has been proven right. A new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution shows that the number and intensity of the worst wildfires on Earth have doubled in the past two decades.

The authors of the new study, researchers from the University of Tasmania, first calculated the energy released by different fires over 21 years from 2003 to 2023. They did this by using a satellite-based sensor that can detect the heat released by fires, and measuring the energy released as “fire radiative power.”

The researchers identified a total of 30 million fires (technically 30 million “fire events”, which may include some clusters of fires grouped together). They then selected the top 2,913 that released the most energy, i.e. the 0.01 percent “most extreme” wildfires. Their work shows that these extreme wildfires are occurring more frequently, with their number doubling in the past two decades. Since 2017, the Earth has experienced the most extreme wildfires in six years (all years except 2022).

Importantly, these extreme wildfires are becoming more intense. Fires classified as severe in recent years emitted twice as much energy as fires classified as severe at the beginning of the study period.

These findings match other recent evidence that wildfires are getting worse. For example, the area of ​​forest burned each year is increasing slightly, which is also increasing forest carbon emissions. (The total land area burned each year is actually decreasing, due to fewer fires in grasslands and croplands, but these fires are less intense and emit less carbon than wildfires.)

Burn severity – an indicator of how badly fires damage ecosystems – is also worsening in many regions, and the percentage of burned land affected by high-intensity burns is increasing globally.

ILO estimates of trends in extreme fires: area burned and the fraction of area burned at high severity for six 'biomes'...

Courtesy of Victor Fernández García

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