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Risk of wildfires could rise by 50% by end of the century with previously untouched Arctic under threat, report warns

The risk of catastrophic wildfires could increase by 50% by the end of the century, UN experts have warned.

A report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) calls on fires to be treated in same category as other humanitarian disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

And it warns things have got so bad, even previously unaffected regions such as the Arctic now face an elevated risk of wildfires.

Read more about the most recent wildfires around the world


The report, Spreading Like Wildfire: The Rising Threat Of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, calls for a radical change in government spending, shifting investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.

Tim Christopherson, of the UNEP told Sky News: “Wildfires are on the rise and the whole world needs to move its stance on fires from being reactive to being proactive.

“At the moment we react to wildfires when it’s almost too late. We have to invest more in preparation and prevention.”

More on Wildfires

What does the report call for?

It urges governments to devote two-thirds of spending to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery – just 1% of total spend is currently used.

This should be made up of a combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge as well as stronger regional and international cooperation.

It called on all relevant parties to proactively learn from each other’s experiences, seek out best practices and inspiring examples from around the world by sharing data, information, and analysis to improve forecasting and learning

The remaining cash should go towards response instead of the current budget of 50%.

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Animals and plants threatened by wildfire in Argentina

What regions are most at risk?

Almost every vegetation region of the world has a free-burning fire at some time of the year, the report says.

The areas that suffer highest concentration of landscape fires and wildfires per square kilometre include South and Central America, central and southern Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia.

Tropical forests in Indonesia and the southern Amazon are likely to see increased burning if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate.

There will also be significant changes in burnt area in landscapes that currently experience burning.

And current models suggest that some areas, such as the Arctic, are very likely to experience a significant increase in burning by the end of the century.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view shows a tree at the center of a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil August 14, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo
An aerial view shows a tree at the centre of a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil

What increases the risk of wildfires and what are the main drivers?

The report says wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating.

They are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons.

Read more: Last seven years were warmest on record ‘by a clear margin’

At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests.

This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.

Lightning strikes and human carelessness have always – and will always – spark uncontrolled blazes, but land-use change, and poor land and forest management mean wildfires are more often encountering the fuel and weather conditions to becoming destructive.

A koala licks rainwater off a road near Moree, New South Wales, Australia in this January 16, 2020 picture...
A koala licks rainwater off a road near Moree, New South Wales, Australia in January 2020

How do wildfires affect wildlife?

The Lancet claims annual exposure to wildfire smoke results in more than 30,000 deaths across the 43 countries included in the study.

But other species also pay the price: besides a devastating loss of habitat, the smouldering swathes of land left behind in a wildfire’s wake are scattered with the charred remains of animals and plants possibly fast-tracking extinctions.

Last year, fires that got out of control in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland in Latin America, destroyed almost a third of one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots and there are now genuine concerns that this wetland will never fully recover.

And the Australian 2020 bushfires are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals.

DATE IMPORTED:04 January, 2020A natural color satellite image shows smoke from wildfires burning east of Obrost, Victoria, Australia January 4, 2020. Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies/Handout
This satellite image shows smoke from wildfires burning east of Obrost, Victoria, Australia in January 2020

How can wildfires be prevented?

Eliminating the risk of wildfires is not possible, but much can be done to manage and reduce risks, the UNEP says.

The report says one way is to restrict activities that might lead to accidental fire ignitions.

The restoration of ecosystems is also an important way of cutting the risk of wildfires or to build back better in their aftermath.

Wetland restoration and the reintroduction of species such as beavers, peatlands restoration, building at a distance from vegetation and preserving open space buffers are some examples of the essential investments into prevention, preparedness and recovery.

And when reforesting areas, more indigenous forests of mixed trees should be grown instead of exotic fire-prone varieties.


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