Drought and sustained heat are ‘perfect storm’ for fires Southern Europe

The Mediterranean has been struggling with high temperatures and wildfires for over a week. In Turkey and Greece, the situation is most urging; thousands of people fleeing from the fire. Eight people died in Turkey over the past ten days.

Firefighters in Greece tried to contain at least 154 fires yesterday. Greek Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias spoke of an unprecedented situation.

These are footage from tonight; residents of Limni on the Greek island of Evia were evacuated by ferry for the impending fire:

In addition to Greece and Turkey, countries in the Balkans and Italy have to deal with wildfires.

The fact that the fires have been so fierce over the past ten days is due to a perfect storm according to climate scientist and professor Guido van der Werf of the Vrije Universiteit. โ€œIf youve ever made a campfire, you know that when the material is hot and dry, it burns easilyโ€. That was exactly what was going on in the past period: the mercury rose above 40 degrees in much of the Mediterranean region and there was hardly any rain.

Forest fires not uncommon

The fire is related to more extreme weather. A report by the UN International Panel of Climate Change recently revealed that the Mediterranean is likely to face warmer temperatures. European Heads of Government point to climate change, like Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis yesterday.

Certainly thats right, experts say. Previously, wildfires would also occur without climate change. Strange as it may sound, most forests are supposed to burn every now and then, says Van der Werf. But more heat leads to better conditions for such a fire. Climate change increases heat and drought, increasing the risk of fire. In addition, fires increase in severity: the fire easily skips into a dehydrated forest.

Heavier and more frequent

โ€œForest fires are part of it, but we have seen a change in terms of severity in recent years,โ€ says Gert-Jan Nabuurs, Professor of European Forests at Wageningen University. โ€œIn the primeval forests in Russia, it is normal for a fire to go through the area once every two hundred years. Over the past few decades, we have seen that the time between those fires is getting shorter and shorter. Now such fires occur once every 80 to 90 years.โ€

That shortened time interval is related to climate change, says Nabuurs. The impact of climate change is much more visible in Siberia, where enormous areas of forest are on fire at the moment. โ€œAround the higher latitudes, as in Russia, warming is more severe than in Europe. So the fires are more extreme there.โ€

Correspondent Iris de Graaf traveled to the remote Russian region of Yakutia, far in Siberia. Its been burning there for weeks, its size is huge. From her special journey she made this vlog:

The situation in Siberia is much more serious than in Europe, both experts say. The European fires cause a lot of nuisance, but the scale of the fires in Siberia is, according to Van Der Werf, โ€œreally exceptionalโ€. He foresees that this pattern will continue over the next few decades, as it gets warmer all over the world.

More CO2 emissions

The increase in intensity of fires leads to another problem in addition to immediate nuisance: more CO2 emissions. When burning trees, stored CO2 is released. Van Der Werf: โ€œA forest fire is normally CO2 neutral. As soon as the forest grows back, the CO2 released into the atmosphere is reabsorbed by the trees. But when the fires get bigger, it wont work fully.โ€ This contributes to global warming and hence to climate change. A vicious circle, in short.

How much emissions the forest fires are causing worldwide this year is still hard to say, but its a serious amount of emissions, experts say. For example, Australias bushfires accounted for emissions comparable to entire global aviation of one year in 2019 and 2020.

Van Der Werf: โ€œYou can see that Turkey is already on a record in terms of emissions, at least for this time of year and probably for the whole year too.โ€ Global emissions are exceptional as well, but this is mainly due to the fires in North America and Russia.

In order to ensure that the fires do not intensify in the future, there are two options according to the professors. One of them is to stop global warming. But even if that succeeds, the temperature will rise over the next twenty years. That is why Van der Werf believes it is important at the moment to make forests less vulnerable to climate change.

โ€œWe need our woodsmanage differently. Now the woods are burning at a time when you dont really want to. The woods are so dry now that the fire seizes destructively around them.โ€

One solution, according to him, is to burn the soil vegetation early in the year – if the woods are still humid. This vegetation is now the fuel for the fire, particularly in the Mediterranean. Van Der Werf: โ€œWe need to learn to see fire as a means instead of danger again.โ€