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12 August 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 1:27pm

Europe’s year of fire is set to be the worst ever

The continent is burning at more than twice the normal rate, according to New Statesman analysis.

By Ben van der Merwe

The devastating wildfires that have swept across the Greek island of Evia over the past week have catapulted this year’s European wildfire season to record breaking levels, according to an exclusive New Statesman analysis.

“It’s like a horror movie,” one 38-year old pregnant evacuee told Reuters. “But now this is not the movie, this is real life.” Other areas in Greece have also experienced wildfires in recent weeks, along with swathes of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and large parts of Sicily.

[See also: IPCC climate report: the arrival of the natural disaster movie age?]

Fire has decimated the Greek island of Evia
Extent of August 2021 fires in Evia
Source: FIRMS

Evia’s blazes come during Greece’s worst heatwave in more than three decades, with temperatures reaching 45°C in parts of the country last week, and barely a month after neighbouring Cyprus fought off the worst wildfires in its history.

More than 693 million European hectares been burned so far in 2021, which is more than double the average for this time of year, according to New Statesman analysis of data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

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Europe’s forest fires are getting worse by the year
This year could be the worst on record
*Excluding those smaller than 5 hectares
Source: EFFIS

From 2009 until 2016, around 239 million hectares would typically have burnt by early August. Since 2017, the average has been 577 million. The number of wildfires has also never been greater. EFFIS has so far recorded 4,197 wildfires spanning at least five hectares in 2021 – by far the highest number on record for this time of year.

Only one year between 2009 and 2017 had seen more than 700 fires by August. Each year since 2017 has exceeded this figure by the equivalent stage. This week’s landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sets out in no unclear terms the reason for these trends. Climate change has contributed to hotter summers and more frequent and severe droughts, transforming southern Europe into a tinderbox.

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Latest IPCC estimates under different global temperature change scenarios
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sixth Assessment Report

According to the IPCC, this trend is likely to continue even if global warming is limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with once-in-a-century droughts occurring every two to five years by 2050. By that time, the total area annually inflamed in the Mediterranean is expected to increase by 40 per cent. If global warming is allowed to proceed to 3°C, the area burned is expected to double.

“For 30 years, scientists have been warning us in ever starker terms about the future we risk hurtling towards if we don't tackle the climate crisis,” Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, told the New Statesman. “Wildfires, like heat waves and floods, are part of the future they warned about. What we're seeing now is that future arriving.”

A draft of a UN report, leaked on 6 August, suggested that the Mediterranean is likely to experience warming around 20 per cent greater than the global average.

The report, due to be published early next year, predicts severe water shortages, coastal flooding and extreme heat waves, according to AFP.  The threat isn’t limited to Europe. Authorities in California are currently battling the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Canada has also been struggling to contain a series of major forest fires, while Russia’s current wildfires have emitted more carbon dioxide than any other on record.

Between 1979 and 2013, the total global land area affected by long fire-weather seasons doubled, with the length of fire seasons increasing by 19 per cent according to the IPCC report.

At a press conference on Monday 9 August, Joeri Rogelj, one of the report’s co-authors, told reporters that current climate pledges by world governments would put the world on track for warming of between 2.1°C and 3.5°C by 2080 – well in excess of the 1.5°C target agreed at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Given that many pledges have not yet been fulfilled, Rogelj added, the world could be heading for warming as high as 4.6°C.

With 4°C of warming, the IPCC report estimates, the world’s tropical regions would spend a third of the year exposed to temperatures of over 40.6°C, while the average fire season would be extended by approximately seven weeks.

“What we burn and what gets burned is deeply linked,” said Parr. “The more we pump out carbon into the atmosphere, the worse the risk of these events becomes. Every new Shetland oil field and coal mine in Cumbria proposed here in the UK is paid for by lives and communities being disrupted in places like Greece and Turkey. Who knows if the UK will be next for serious climate disruption? It’s something our government, and every other around the world, must wake up to.”