Number and Intensity of Extreme Fires has Doubled in 20 Years

A global-level satellite data analysis has demonstrated that extreme fires are indeed increasing. There are more than twice as many extreme fires now as there were 21 years ago, and the most extreme fires in any given year are twice as intense as they were.

The data was derived from 21 years of daily satellite overpasses at 10.30am/pm and 1.30am/pm from 2003 to 2023, inclusive. The project was led by Australia’s renowned pyrogeographer, David Bowman of University of Tasmania.

Sourced from the journal Nature, Ecology, Evolution.

The research found that the six most intense years for bushfires worldwide occurred over the past seven years. In this respect, the findings are unsurprising and indeed accord with decades of predictions from climate scientists.

There was more to this research than that, however. A striking finding was the geographic distribution of these new, intenser fires. 

Their concentration was marked in regions of forest that are not historically adapted to fire, but become vulnerable when they dry out. Now, most likely because of global warming in combination with local land use changes, many such forests have tipped into a zone of climactic vulnerability.

So in western North America, extreme fires in coniferous forests have increased 11-fold over the past two decades. Similarly, high latitude forests in Canada, Russia and the US have been affected, with a 7-fold increase over the 20-year period.

Surprisingly, in spite of the magnitude of the 2019-20 bushfires, the research found no significant increase in the trend line in the frequency and severity of fires in Australia. This aspect of the findings would have been impacted by the fact that the study period, 2003-2023, caught the significant bushfires in the ACT and Victoria in January 2003.

Thumbnail image courtesy @michaelheld via Unsplash.

Sign Up To Our Free Newsletter