German firefighters fight a forest fire in southwestern France. Compared to 2001, forest fires devour 3 million more hectares each year, an area equivalent to the area of Belgium, satellite data shows.
Fires are now destroying twice as much forest cover globally as they did at the turn of the century, the vast majority within the boreal forest, “likely” due to climate change, according to a study revealed on Wednesday.
Compared to 2001, forest fires now devastate approximately 3 million hectares more each year, an area equivalent to that of Belgium, according to satellite data compiled by the Global Forest Watch (GFW), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the University of Maryland.
70% of areas devoured by flames in 20 years are in boreal forests, which cover much of Russia , Canada and Alaska, which are among the largest carbon sinks on the planet.
In Russia, 53 million hectares are have burned since 2001, almost the size of France.
Fires, according to the study, account for more than a quarter of total forest cover loss since the turn of the century, with the rest caused by deforestation or other natural causes (storms and floods ).
In the end, the loss of forest cover due to fires increases by about 4% per year, or an additional 230,000 hectares. And about half of that increase is due to larger fires in boreal forests, likely the result of warming temperatures in northern regions, the researchers note.
According to them, the climate change is likely a major driver of these increases, with extreme heat waves, which render forests arid, now being five times more likely today than a century and a half ago.
The destruction of the forest by these fires, aggravated by drought and high heat, leads to massive emissions of greenhouse gases, which further aggravates climate change through the mechanism of a fire-climate feedback loop , they add.
In these boreal regions, CO2 has accumulated in the ground for hundreds of years and has been protected by a moist layer on the top,” GFW analyst James McCarthy told AFP. These more frequent and severe fires burn this upper layer and release this CO2.
This dynamic, warns the study, could ultimately cause boreal forests to lose their status. carbon sinks.
Researchers call on governments to improve the resilience of forests by halting deforestation and limiting certain local forest management practices, including controlled burning, which is very at risk during periods of drought. Forests are one of the best defenses we have against climate change, McCarthy said.