World on fire: How do we adapt to a hotter planet?
Researchers around the globe agree: the Earth is getting warmer and warmer, extreme weather such as heat waves and long droughts increase the risk of wildfires. The group Wildfires in the Anthropocene at the Pufendorf Institute connects researchers from across Lund University who study fires from different perspectives: climate change, health, environmental security, fire safety and biodiversity.
Every year, the wildfire season grows longer in California, fires in the Amazon and Australia are increasing dramatically and this summer, large fires took hold of southern Europe. These more extreme and unpredictable fires occur more frequently and are more difficult to fight.
The group Wildfires in the Anthropocene at the Pufendorf Institute connects researchers from across Lund University. Together, they want to investigate the reasons behind, and the effects of, wildfires.
Wildfires: An eye-opener?
"We cannot ignore wildfires," says Lina Eklund, researcher at the Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, and the Center for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies.
"We can see how the damage affects us acutely, perhaps it will be an eye-opener for us; get more discussions started about climate change on Earth. Wildfires are here to stay. How do we learn to live with that, and what do we need to do to reduce the number of fires?"
The debate about what causes forest fires is underway on several levels. Are researchers to put their trust in hard environmental data or do they need to research into how political and economic systems steer and affect the climate?
Political scientist Pinar Dinc, from the Center for Advanced Middle Eastern studies, is researching the relationship between conflicts and fires in the Middle East. Can we find correlations between various levels of conflict and the increasing incidence of fires? A deeper analysis of the underlying reasons for conflicts, and climate change has attracted more attention in recent years.
"It is not, however, straightforward. Who, or what, actually starts a fire? Is it the state, a marginalized group of people, drought? As far as we can tell, political problems combined with environmental factors cause wildfires."
Lina Eklund specializes in remote analysis, in which she studies satellite images and data, enabling her to see what has happened across large areas of land over time. It is work that she has applied to the areas of conflict in the Middle East, where political and religious factors are usually analyzed.
"I focus on seeing how the landscape, for example agricultural land, changes over time. My research also shows that when conflicts intensify and more people die, the number of fires also increases."
Both Lina Eklund and Pinar Dinc note that the deforestation that takes place after a large fire challenges society to find new ways of living and that exerts pressure at a political level to accomplish change.
"The more we work on this area, the more I think about how groups—and marginalized groups in particular—need to resist what is happening on their land," says Pinar Dinc.
With the help of satellite images, Lina Eklund has been able to see fires in the area around Chernobyl. Fires that, presumably, were caused by conflict in the area. These fires could cause the release of radioactive particles that have been in the ground since the nuclear accident in 1986.
"What do these fires mean in terms of these dangerous substances that could end up in the atmosphere? Earlier fires around Chernobyl have not led to the release of particles at dangerous levels, but it is frightening that it might burn in an area as critical as this."
Fires without borders
Fire does not respect national borders; a wildfire can spread from one country to another. Buildings are destroyed, agricultural land laid to waste, and it can result in forced migration. How do we deal with it, what strategies are necessary in each individual country and together, internationally? In several countries there is a lack of centralization, which became very apparent in Sweden during the hot summer of 2018. Some 50 or so fires broke out, and in order to bring the situation under control the EU assisted with the firefighting effort with resources from Italy, France and elsewhere. And it is that kind of cooperation that Pinar Dinc and Lina Eklund hope to see.
"It is important that we broaden our perspectives within research too, and look at political and economic factors that can be a cause of fires. It is frustrating, however, that we researchers produce facts that could be used to make the world better, but politicians are not always receptive," says Pinar Dinc.
Lina Eklund and Pinar Dinc envisage a future in which we learn more about the causes of wildfires and how we combat them, and at the same time find ways of living with these fires in order to better adapt our societies to a hotter world.
"Ultimately, it is not nature that will be destroyed, but humanity. Nature will always be the winner," says Pinar Dinc.
Provided by Lund University