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Sensemaker: Fire season

Sensemaker: Fire season

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The IPCC report on the state of the climate crisis, released today, is a “code red for humanity” according to UN secretary-general António Guterres. 
  • Taliban militants captured three regional capitals in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, including the strategically important city of Kunduz.
  • Scotland removed most of its remaining Covid restrictions, with social distancing rules lifted and hospitality venues permitted to open to full capacity.

Fire season

Fires blazed in Athens over the weekend, engulfing forests and homes on the outskirts of the city. Thousands of residents were evacuated as strong winds pushed the fires towards residential areas. The heat has been extreme – for eleven days, temperatures sat above 40 degrees C, reaching up to 47 degrees (a new record) in parts of the country last Tuesday. What gives? Climate change is unquestionably a factor, although the acreage consumed by fire in Europe is actually down since the 1980s.

The scenes in Greece  – of red skies and billowing smoke – have been repeated across southern Europe in recent weeks and months. Turkey, Italy, Albania, Bulgaria and Croatia are also dealing with huge blazes. 

Around the world, protracted heat waves have created the perfect conditions for wildfires. 

  • California, USA: There are 11 major wildfires burning now in California. One of them – the Dixie Fire – became the second largest in the state’s history after consuming 187,000 hectares and 400 buildings. 
  • Hawaii, USA: Hawaii’s Big Island suffered its biggest ever bushfire, with 16,000 hectares burned. There are 107 wildfires raging across 15 US states. In all, they’ve burned 920,000 hectares. 
  • Yakutia, Russia: 1.5 million hectares of forest in Siberia have gone up in smoke so far this summer. 

The fires in Russia and North America made last month the worst July for global carbon emissions from wildfires since records began in 2003.

In Europe the fire season is far from over – there are still around two months of warm weather left – but already this year there have been more fires than average and larger areas of forest have burned: 550,000 hectares in the EU and the rest of Europe so far in 2021, according to the European Forest Fire Information System. That’s an area roughly equivalent to two Luxembourgs. 

The area burned in the EU this summer has already surpassed the average total hectares burned in previous years.

From March onwards, the number and volume of fires was higher than average, but, as the graph above shows, the numbers really spiked in July, when temperatures soared. This year, Europe recorded its second hottest July ever. 

What are the trends? Overall, the European Environment Agency says the area burned by wildfires in the EU’s five major Mediterranean countries (EUMED5) has decreased slightly since the 1980s – a decline attributed in part to improvements in fire management practices over the past few decades. 

Although there’s been a downward trend, there are so many factors influencing the spread of fires (weather, drought, fire management policy) that there is massive variability in the numbers of hectares burned each year. For example, 2017 saw the largest area of land burned in the EUMED5 since 1985, but in 2018 fires burned the lowest area on record. 

What role is climate change playing? Attribution is a difficult science. It’s hard to say whether an individual wildfire was definitively linked to, or intensified by, climate change. 

What we do know is that the Mediterranean is already warm and dry, and climate change is making it warmer and drier. A series of severe droughts and heatwaves since 2014 have contributed to forest dieback, meaning more dry wood, and the recent hot weather has desiccated trees, foliage and undergrowth. And it looks like things will only get worse: a draft report by the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), due to be published next year, says the Mediterranean will be a “climate change hotspot” in the coming decades, with warming 20 per cent higher than in other parts of the world. 

In an interview with the Telegraph, Alexander Held, a fire ecologist at the European Forest Institute explained how climate change is turning Europe’s forests into tinderboxes: “Under milder weather conditions, only around 50 per cent of the vegetation would be available as fuel. Now, it’s almost 80 per cent or even 100 per cent.”

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Alibaba assault case
Alibaba has sacked a manager accused of sexual assault after a female employee posted her account of the incident on the company’s internal message board. Two senior executives at the Chinese online retail giant have also resigned after allegations they failed to investigate the woman’s complaints. The woman’s testimony went viral on Chinese social networking sites over the weekend. According to the NYT ($) seven of the top 30 trending topics on Weibo, China’s Twitter, related to Alibaba. People posting comments were outraged that the company failed to protect the woman, while others called for change to China’s male-dominated tech sector. The Alibaba case is the second high-profile accusation of sexual assault to emerge in China in the last few weeks. Kris Wu, a Canadian American popstar, was arrested last month on suspicion of rape.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Vaccine excess 
The UK is expected to have a surplus of up to 210 million Covid vaccine doses, according to research collated by the Guardian. Airfinity, a life science analytics company, says by the end of this year 467 million doses are due to be delivered to the UK. To fulfil demand and vaccinate over-16s plus booster doses for the vulnerable only 256.6 million jabs are needed; the 210 million figure is the difference. As mentioned last week, the booster plan ignores the World Health Organisation’s plea for a moratorium on booster shots in order to vaccinate at least 10 per cent of the world by September. The UK is also in trouble for obstructing a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines. Oxfam’s head of inequality policy, Max Lawson, says the situation is akin to vaccine apartheid. Hoarding is also self-defeating, he says: “It’s only going to prolong the pandemic, leading to more deaths and, ultimately, to mutations of coronavirus that could undermine the UK’s own vaccination programme”. It’s a situation we’re campaigning to change. Join our Arms Race to find out more. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Scientists in the UK and Denmark have been experimenting with a new way of measuring biodiversity: air sampling. They trap and filter air and use polymerase chain reactions to amp up the small amounts of DNA in the samples. A team from Queen Mary University of London used the technique to collect traces of 17 different species in 72 air samples at Homerton Park Zoo in Cambridgeshire last year. The Danish researchers identified 49 different species at Copenhagen Zoo. The idea is that, out in the wild, this technology will help researchers to measure biodiversity in inhospitable places such as caves and deserts – and help them find elusive animals that steer clear of the camera traps and sound recording equipment more traditionally used to capture data on species.

New things technology, science, engineering

Scam apps
When you buy things online there’s always a risk you’ll end up with a dud, but that’s not what you expect from products on the App Store. Maybe you should. Apple has been accused by two independent iOS developers of unknowingly promoting scam apps. The developers complained about a series of “slime simulator” apps – relaxation games where users play with colourful virtual slime – that Apple had put into a curated collection on its App Store homepage. Some of the apps in the collection had little to no functionality, meaning presumably no actual virtual slime. The apps offer users free trials, but only if they enter their card details first. The bet is that users forget to cancel after the trial period and can then be automatically charged for an expensive subscription, perhaps as much as £7 per week. The apps use Apple’s native, in-app software to take payments, so Apple is taking a cut from the sale of these useless apps too. Analysis by the Washington Post earlier this year found that close to 2 per cent of the 1000 highest grossing apps on the App Store are scams.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Cash coup
Imagine queuing for hours to get cash out and finding there is no money left. That’s what Myanmar’s citizens are facing right now. Cash shortages – and cash dependency – are fuelling a financial crisis that devalued the local currency, the kyat, by 20 per cent against the dollar. The NYT reports that fewer than 100 ATMs nationwide currently have money available, and only two dozen are stocked each day in the country’s largest city, Yangon (population 5 million). Following Myanmar’s military coup six months ago nearly all the banks closed and the junta restricted online payments, leading to acute cash dependency and withdrawal restrictions to limit the protest movements. The German supplier of materials needed to print money then boycotted the regime, creating a recipe for economic disaster. The junta says the pandemic and border closures are the real reasons for the shortage and that the issues will be resolved this month. We shall see.

The week ahead

09/08 – Scotland eases Covid restrictions; BMJ publishes feasibility study on global eradication of Covid, 10/08 – A-level results day, 11/08 – Villarreal plays Chelsea in UEFA Super Cup match in Belfast; ONS releases data on Covid infections in schools for June; Henley Royal Regatta begins, 12/08 – ONS releases data on UK GDP for Q2 2021

09/08 – IPCC releases report on climate change; France opens its Covid health app service to tourists, 10/08 – Corruption trial of former South African president Jacob Zuma continues; War crimes trial for an Iranian national starts in Sweden, 11/08 – Brazil holds senate panel on President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic; Belarus Supreme Court hears case seeking to close down the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 12/08 – General election in Zambia; South African president Cyril Ramaphosa gives evidence to “state capture” inquiry, 13/08 – Premier League fixtures begin; England play India in second test match; EU release foriegn trade statistics 

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Ella Hill

Phoebe Davis

Photographs by Getty Images