Earlier this month a gender reveal party gone wrong ignited a new series of wildfires, which continue to rage on. The freak accident, however, only explains how these fires began and not why they have spread so rapidly, causing significant health complications, destruction, and death.
Wildfires along the western coast of the United States are not uncommon, this time last year firefighters devoted countless months to fighting an earlier series of fires. Still, year on year the ferocity and devastation of the fires grow, resulting in this year unprecedented damage and at least 33 deaths. Wildfires are just one of the ways in which climate change is both reshaping and destroying the landscape and the lives of the inhabitants.
Last year researchers in the US noted a 500% increase in the annual burned area for California between the years 1972 and 2018, rising to a staggering 800% during the times of the year in which forest fires are particularly bad. While these figures are startling, it is unsurprising given the underlying data which shows the climate of the region evolving rapidly.
Figures released by NASA show how the number of heatwaves to hit California annually has gone from a steady average of 4 between 1960 and 1980 to 10 so far in 2020. On top of that, the length and intensity of the heatwaves are also following a similar upward trend.
Wildfires are not the only way in which the climate crisis is affecting lives in California and the western coast of the US. Between the years 2012 to 2016, the region saw its worst droughts in history. Water shortages have become a major concern, particularly in southern California.
The region relies on water being supplied from more northern regions which are also struggling to cope with drought themselves. The water-intensive farming that takes place in southern California has suffered as a result and it is estimated that nearly one million residents of the state are exposed to unsafe drinking water each year. The dry nature of the environment also lends itself to quick- fire lighting and spread.
While some measures can be taken to avoid the destruction of wildfires like safer practises by humans to stop fires starting and better forest management, the main issue is the climate of the region and in other parts of the world is perfect conditions for fires to spread quickly and to create a huge amount of destruction.
Putting a stop to the trend of increasing average global temperatures is the only way to help the region and many others around the world. The 2016 Paris climate agreement, signed up to by 189 countries aimed to limit the increase in global temperatures to well below 2°C and to strive for an increase of just 1.5°C.
The truth, however, is that the increases in temperature that have already taken place are causing a huge amount of damage and it is difficult to fathom how badly the regions worst affected by climate change will be hit even if the targets are hit. These extreme weather events are just more examples of the need for a more radical and immediate solution.
Conor Paterson – Features Editor
Vanessa Gomes – Science Correspondent