Monday, July 23, 2012

Forests on Fire - With Very Different Causes for Concern

We are currently witnessing the largest natural disaster ever, by area, in the U.S. (see image of the drought coverage area above). The scope of the disaster leads to a variety of harms, not the least of which is increased risk of fire, as evidenced by the recent fires near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Scientific American reports that this may just be the beginning, as climate change becomes the match, so to speak, that lights the "fire deficit" witnessed in the western U.S. over the last 100 years. In fact, for most of our recent history the frequency of fire activity has been directly correlated with climate change - until about 100 years ago, when fire suppression efforts disassociated the two. In only the last 30 years, fire frequency in the West has increased more than 300 percent, while the annual acreage burned has increased 500 percent. Ultimately, "[a]s the West continues to warm, that [fire] debt will come due – possibly with interest – triggering fires that are fiercer and harder to contain," scientists warn.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe forest fires are increasingly concerning for entirely different _61390795_pict0003_levels_464 reasons - highlighting yet again the intersection between environmental, energy, and natural resource vectors. The Chernobyl nuclear accident laced the mostly pine forest 30 km exclusionary zone around Chernobyl with a variety of radioactive isotopes. Much of this forest constitutes "dying radioactive plantations" that are "considered too dangerous and expensive to clear." If they catch on fire, which is a concern, "one expert likens the potential effect to setting off a nuclear bomb in Eastern Europe. Wind could carry radioactive smoke particles large distances, not just in Ukraine, but right across the continent." But even though this potentiality may be lower on the probability scale, a common occurrence is the numerous Ukraine firefighters frequently exposed to smaller forest fires they extinguish to avoid a major disaster. Climate change rears its ugly head once more, as it may also increase the likelihood of radioactive forest fires.

We can hardly escape the increasing evidence of climate change's effects, but perhaps no disaster shines quite as bright of a light on climate change as forest fires.

- Blake Hudson

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