Spain burns as global temperatures rise
The Spanish city of Valencia sits under a blanket of ash, as two converging fires continue to devour the eastern coast of the country. Since the blaze ignited last week, more than 45,000 hectares of land have been destroyed, forcing upwards of 2,000 people to flee their homes.
The fires, which have not yet been controlled, are the worst the country has seen in more than a decade, and began as scorching temperatures made tinder of the earth. According to the Spanish environmental ministry one of the fires appears to have been started accidentally by workers outside the city, and the other was caused by an agricultural burn that got out of hand.
Lone houses stand atop hillsides ringed in flames. Charred stumps smolder in place of towering pines. The countryside chokes on air thick with smoke. These images of destruction are the work of not only fire, but also severe drought, which has become an issue of growing concern in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. This year, Spain suffered its worst drought in 70 years, when it received less than 30 percent of normal rainfall. Since the start of the year, ten major forest fires have ravaged landscapes throughout the country, laying ruin to forests and agricultural tracts.
What’s occurring in Spain is part of an alarming global trend. Worldwide as the mercury climbs, fires have increased in not only frequency but also in magnitude and deadliness. Over the past few years, fires have consumed an estimated 350 to 450 million hectares each year, which is equivalent to setting the whole of India ablaze. Of further concern is research indicating that fires are not only the result of a changing climate, but that they are exacerbating overall warming. When forests burn they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the conditions that are raising temperatures and altering precipitation patterns.
Fires are a natural and important feature of environmental cycles, but they are commonly misused in deforestation and agricultural management. While burning land can help improve soil quality and slash and burn, or swidden, regimes are often ecologically sustaining, many of the industrial-scale fires in South America and Southeast Asia have devastated local biodiversity and caused soil erosion and nutrient losses. Moreover, they’ve pumped millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. A study published in Nature in 2002 found that the giant burns in Borneo – where corporations have replaced one of the world’s most varied landscapes with uniform palm oil plantations – spewed as much carbon dioxide into the air as the entire planet’s biosphere removes in a year.
While Spain’s fire is devastating, its impact is but a fraction of the havoc caused by the blazes searing the American West. There, scientists say oppressive heat, droughts and uncontrollable flames are the new normal of summer. In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on extreme weather and disasters, warning that unprecedented droughts, heat waves and floods are in store for the planet. This week, the report’s lead author, Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University, said in a statement: “It’s really dramatic how many of the patterns that we’ve talked about as the expression of the extremes are hitting the U.S. right now.”
Commenting on the season’s disasters, Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer said: “What we’re seeing really is a window into what global warming really looks like. It looks like heat. It looks like fires. It looks like this kind of environmental disaster.”
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