Fires burning nearly twice as much forest as 20 years ago: study

Fires are consuming about twice the amount of forest they did two decades ago, according to research from the University of Maryland published in the journal Frontiers in Remote Sensing.

Researchers found that compared to the turn of the 21st century, forest fires cause about 3 million more hectares of tree loss, approximately the landmass of Belgium. In 2021, forest fires accounted for about a third of tree cover loss, burning 9.3 million hectares worldwide, according to the study.

Although climate change is not the sole factor in forest fires or their intensity, it is a major driver of conditions that make them more likely to spread out of control. Warmer temperatures contribute to reduced snowpack and drier conditions, leading to a feedback loop when the bigger fires produce more greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of the recent coverage has focused on the particularly intense forest fires in the U.S., where more than 6 million acres — predominantly in the West — have burned so far this year. However, amid a sweltering European heatwave this summer, French forests have seen unprecedented fires this summer that burned more than 3,000 hectares in July in the southern part of the country.

The fires are triggering more intense climate reactions in another way as well: About 70 percent of tree cover loss since 2001 is in boreal, or northern, regions, and the losses have grown by about 3 percent during that period, or about half the worldwide increase, according to the University of Maryland study. Boreal forests are considered carbon sinks, or net absorbers of carbon, but the trend threatens to reverse this until they eventually emit more than they take in.

Those forests are major receptacles of underground carbon reserves, particularly in the permafrost that has not historically been at this level of risk of melting. Russia alone lost 5.4 million hectares of tree cover last year, a 31 percent increase compared to the year before, the study found.

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