Can global warming be held culpable for wildfires?

In the wake of the devastating wildfires that tore through the Pedrógão Grande region of Portugal just over a year ago, a group of children (in association with British environmental lawyers and the NGO Global Legal Action Network) affected by the fires are crowdfunding with the eventual aim of levelling the blame for the wildfire at a total of 47 European countries for their failure to adequately combat climate change. They have already accumulated over £27,000, and aim to eventually raise a total of £350,000 to take their case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

They certainly believe they have a legitimate claim – and so too do the people pledging money to support their cause. So, how interrelated is global warming and the frequency and severity of wildfires? And, when it comes down to it, just how responsible are the European countries for the Portuguese wildfire?

The cause: dry thunderstorm

It hasn’t quite been confirmed what exactly started the wildfires in Portugal, but it has been widely accepted by officials that the initial spark was provided by a dry thunderstorm. For the unfamiliar, a dry thunderstorm is a thunderstorm without the rain. In a particularly hot climate, the rain will evaporate before it even touches the ground, in a phenomenon known as virga.

Dry thunderstorm
Dry thunderstorms occur essentially in dry conditions, and their lightning is a major cause of wildfires. Image: Wikipedia

How has climate change made it worse?

In the past, Portugal has been no stranger to dry thunderstorms, and recent research suggests they are likely to become even better acquainted – a report produced by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that the incidence of lightning strikes will increase by 12% for every 1°C increase in global temperature. Given that we can attribute the increased frequency of lightning strikes to global warming; it isn’t unfair to say that global warming has increased the likelihood of wildfires taking place in Portugal.

The cause: heat wave

A prerequisite to the lighting and spread of any wildfire is the state of the woodland itself. Prior to the outbreak of the deadly wildfire, Portugal was at the epicentre of a searing European heat wave, where temperatures exceeded 40°C. It is far from happenstance that this maelstrom of heat coincided with the wildfire itself. The absence of rain made the Eucalyptus trees that line Portuguese forests even more flammable than usual, creating a singular set of conditions that were ripe for a wildfire.

How has climate change made it worse?

There is no doubt climate change has made these kinds of heatwaves more and more prevalent. One international body, The World Weather Attribution Group, claims that climate change has made the occurrence of such temperatures 10 times more likely – placing the impetus for the wildfire on global warming.

Statistics from further afield certainly serve to corroborate fears that the advance of climate change is responsible for the increased incidence of wildfires. The US alone has spent a record amount of money on fighting wildfires in the West this year – $2 billion as of September. It is clear then, that global warming has contributed to the increased incidence of wildfires. For that reason, it is imperative that we strive to bequeath future generations a healthy and stable planet, and any way we can reduce carbon emissions must be pursued – installing water and energy-efficient circulating pumps is just one example. Whether the European Court of Human Rights acknowledges, and then agrees with the Portuguese children that Europe’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide are responsible for this troubling trend however, is another story altogether.

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