Climate Change

Wildfires destroy twice the forest cover today compared to 2 decades ago

9.3 million hectares of tree cover was lost globally in 2021 

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 25 August 2022
Wildfire in Stanislaus National Forest near California in 2013. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Forest fires are becoming more common and wildfires are destroying nearly twice as much tree cover globally as they did in 2001, according to a new analysis. An additional 7.4 million acres of forest are getting burnt annually now — an area roughly the size of Belgium.

Fires account for a growing share of forest loss, according to the research by World Resources Institute (WRI), a global research non-profit. Climate change is driving more intense and widespread wildfires by fueling more extreme heat and deepening drought, which dries out forests, the researchers said.

Extreme heat waves are already five times more likely today than they were 150 years ago and are expected to become even more frequent as the planet continues to warm. Wildfires were responsible for over a third of global tree cover loss in 2021, while they were accountable for around a fifth of the loss in 2001.

Read more: Climate change’s dangerous new fires

2021 was one of the worst years for forest fires since the turn of the century, causing an alarming 9.3 million hectares of tree cover loss globally.

Data alone cannot solve this issue, but the new tree cover loss from fires data on Global Forest Watch, along with other fire monitoring data, can help us track fire activity to identify trends and develop targeted, long-term responses, WRI said. 

Map: World Resources Institute

Non-fire related loss can occur from mechanical clearing for agriculture and logging, as well as natural causes such as wind damage and river meandering. Graph: World Resources Institute

The analysis was based on a recent study, Global Trends of Forest Loss Due to Fire From 2001 to 2019. The study found a “near-uniform” growth in fire-related tree loss across the globe, from the Amazon to Australia to Siberia.

The results of the study quantify the increasing threat of fires to remaining forests globally. It may improve the modelling of future forest fire loss rates under various climate change and development scenarios.

The study looked into global trends in fire-related forest loss as there is a lack of globally consistent methodology applied to high spatial resolution data. It also mapped areas of forest loss using a sample-based unbiased estimator, thus enabling map-based area reporting and trend analysis.

Read more: Data on plant ‘sweat’ might help predict wildfire severity

Boreal forests accounted for roughly 70 per cent of fire-related losses over the last two decades, the study found. These forests are still full of life that’s adapted to withstand frigid temperatures year-round. These woods are full of deciduous trees and conifers and cover vast expanses in Canada, Alaska and Russia.

Boreal woodlands saw burned areas grow by 270,000 acres per year, on average, over the last 20 years, according to WRI. These forests are a major carbon sink, with much of that carbon stored in permafrost. As forests burn and permafrost melts, they are unleashing huge stores of greenhouse gases.

Though fires are responsible for less than 10 per cent of all tree cover loss in the tropics, more common drivers like commodity-driven deforestation and shifting agriculture make tropical forests less resilient and more susceptible to fires.

Deforestation and forest degradation associated with agricultural expansion lead to higher temperatures and dried out vegetation, according to WRI. 

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