Fires and climate are changing. Science must change too, says newspaper
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Fires and climate are changing. Science must change too, says newspaper

Fires and climate are changing. Science must change too, says newspaper

Source: CC0 Public Domain

A new paper on the many ways wildfires affect people and the planet makes clear that as fires become more intense and frequent, the need for effective and proactive fire science is growing. By addressing these challenges, the wildfire research community aims to better protect our planet and its inhabitants.

The article was published in Zenodo research repository.

Fire is a natural part of life on Earth, supporting healthy and balanced ecosystems worldwide. However, human activity and a changing climate are rapidly changing the frequency and severity of wildfires, posing new threats to human health and the environment.

Recently, a group of scientists from 14 countries and different fields – physical and social sciences, mathematics, statistics, remote sensing, firefighting communications and arts, operational fire science, and fire management – ​​gathered to discuss the rapid changes in fire regimes and identify ways to address these challenges.

Experts have identified three major challenges for fire science in the coming decades: understanding the role of fire in the carbon cycle, fires and extreme events, and the role of humans in fires.

“If we want to improve the assessment of the impacts of future fires on people and the planet, we need to start by better understanding how climate, land cover change, and human land management practices affect the spread and severity of fires in the coming decades,” says Douglas Hamilton, assistant professor of marine, earth, and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University.

Hamilton, together with Morgane Perron of the University of Brest in France and Joan Llort of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center in Spain, initiated the FLARE (short for Fire Science Learning AcRoss the Earth System) working group.

To address these serious challenges, scientists have identified three urgent research priorities: understanding the net carbon balance associated with fires, developing rapid wildfire response tools, and understanding the impacts of fires on society, particularly marginalized and underrepresented groups.

The first priority, understanding the net carbon balance of fires, refers to understanding how carbon release from fires, ecological recovery after fire, climate change, ocean biology, and ice melt interact to affect Earth’s carbon balance.

“Wildfires can have a significant impact on the global carbon cycle,” says Chantelle Burton, senior climate scientist at the Met Office UK. “Fires in ecosystems that store large amounts of carbon, such as peatlands, permafrost and forests, can release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. But it’s harder to tell where that carbon will ultimately end up and what its impact on future warming will be. Incorporating accurate fire-related carbon fluxes into Earth system models is critical for predicting climate impacts and informing mitigation strategies, and it will require us to bring together experts from across the fire science disciplines.”

The second priority is to develop rapid response tools for wildfires. This involves developing tools that enable faster and more efficient answers to key questions during extreme fires and producing an annual report on key political and media issues.

“Our observational, statistical and modelling tools for assessing and forecasting fires are improving rapidly, but extreme fires are always one step ahead of us,” says Douglas Kelley, a fire scientist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH). “To catch up, we need tools that provide rapid, robust answers to key questions about climate impacts, human causality, affected communities and future risks. These answers need to be clearly communicated to non-experts when they are needed most.”

The third priority aims to examine the impact of the fires on marginalized and underrepresented communities, with a particular focus on Indigenous peoples and environmental justice.

“So how do we use all the tools we have to improve our measurements and help build better models to predict the impacts of any given fire?” Hamilton asks. “And once we do that, how do we best communicate those findings to our communities? We wanted to create a roadmap for science so that our collaborations focus on getting those answers out faster than they currently are.”

The white paper’s primary goal is to improve fire modeling, predictability, and mitigation at both regional and global scales, but Hamilton also hopes FLARE will help advance transdisciplinary science and recruit future fire scientists. “There just aren’t enough scientists in the field to do the work,” Hamilton says.

Sebastian Diez of the Universidad del Desarrollo in Chile and a member of the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC) Early Career Committee emphasizes the importance of global collaboration. “Scientists in the Global South face unique challenges that require locally adapted solutions,” says Diez. “Strengthening research capacity and resources in less affluent regions is essential to effectively address the transdisciplinary challenges of fire science.”

“Fire has always been present in the Earth system. What is new is how it is being affected and how it is affecting humans in the context of wider planetary change,” says Sophie Hebden, Future Earth. “By bringing together Future Earth’s different global research networks, we have been able to address these challenges across research silos and outline a transdisciplinary research agenda for the global fire community.”

As fires become more intense and frequent, the need for effective and proactive fire science is growing. FLARE’s next steps are to address these challenges together as a unified fire research community to better protect our planet and its inhabitants.

More information:
Douglas S Hamilton et al., Igniting Progress: FLARE Workshop Results and Three Challenges for the Future of Transdisciplinary Fire Science, Zenodo (2024). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.12634067

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