Saturday 7 August 2021

The Sea of Fire.

We’ve all seen the news about wildfires in the western US and Canada. In Australia SBS and ABC have also reported the fires in Greece and Turkey and occasionally those in the Russian Federation.


Unfortunately, reporting those stories separately is slightly misleading. Deutsche Welle provides a more comprehensive picture. This map – courtesy of DW – shows the locations of wildfires in the eastern Mediterranean (plus the Black Sea), current as of 05/08/2021:


Unfortunately, scary as that looks, it gets worse.

That map leaves out of the picture the fire-prone western half of the Mediterranean, where wildfires (presently controlled) had already visited Spain in mid-July:


And, by the end of July, it was the turn of Sardinia (the larger island southwest from Rome in the DW map):


Those who still remember their high-school geography may have noticed that, with the exception of France, the whole southern coast of Europe is being affected by fire.


France’s good luck, however, could prove to be short-lived:


Moreover Spain, according to the latest information provided by its civil defense and emergencies authorities, is back to high risk:


Legend: Right panel: mainland Spain and Baleares Islands; left panel: Canary Islands; fire risk: turquoise (low), green (moderate), yellow (high), orange (very high), red (extreme).

A few numbers could be useful to gain a perspective on those fires.

The 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia – ignoring smaller outbreaks in other states – affected a corridor of varying width along the south-east Australian coast. Starting in south-east Queensland, the fires then moved from north to south through most of the New South Wales coast to finally reach eastern Victoria.


A plane, departing from Brisbane (QLD) and flying straight to Mallacoota (VIC) – therefore roughly following the route the fires followed – would have had to fly some 1,161 km or 721 miles.

By comparison, a plane departing from Barcelona (Spain’s Mediterranean coast) flying over the Mediterranean – instead of flying over the coast – straight to Beirut (Lebanon, on the other side of the Mediterranean) would have had to fly a distance more than 2 and a half times longer: some 3,028 km or 1,881 miles.[*]

Evidently, the whole European Mediterranean coast has not been equally affected so far. The Spanish Ministry for Ecological Transformation and Demographic Challenge (here, in Spanish), for example, while warning that the worst phase of the campaign is only about to begin, evaluates their local fire season, as of August 6th, as “close to the average in number of fires and surface burnt”. In Sardinia and Greece, however, authorities qualified their respective fires as “unprecedented”.

Moreover, the area burnt in the Australian case in 2019-2020 dwarfs (even counting only forest fires) the area currently affected in Spain (to a large extent grassfires). Just the largest Black Summer bushfire, the Gospers Mountain Fire (513 thousand hectares of largely forests), devastated an area about 13 times larger than the whole area burnt so far in the Spanish season (40 thousand hectares).[@]


Disturbingly, that may not be the worst Europe is facing, for the wildfires in Russia and Siberia are not yet over:


According to that story (August 4th),
“Colossal forest fires have now devastated 13.4 million hectares of land — an area roughly the size of Greece — in Russia so far in 2021, Greenpeace wrote, citing official data. Only 2003 and 2012 experienced more widespread wildfires by the same point in the season.”
If confirmed, that figure would be extremely alarming because in the 5 to 6 months since they started those fires may have already devastated an area comparable in magnitude to the area affected by the Black Summer in Australia … after almost 10 months (excluding the NT fires, largely grass and scrub fires). I could not verify that figure, however. The link provided (in Russian) seems to mention only 1,071,845 hectares covered by active fires and 34,638 hectares by extinguished fires in the whole of the Russian Federation.

At any event, a slightly older and much more modest estimate of 572 thousand hectares, restricted to the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), similar in size to the Gospers Mountain Fire, is still troublesome: part of that area includes tundra and therefore soils rich in organic and flammable material in addition to the vegetation on top of them.

The notion of tipping point has been around for over 20 year. Readers should have a look at it.

Image Credits:
[A] “Imagery from NASA Aqua Satellite showing MODIS & VIIRS data”. Fire detections in red, notable landmarks labeled (December 7th, 2019). Author: Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS). Source: WikiMedia. File in the public domain.

[*] Readers interested in verifying these figures may use the following data:
Location     Longitude      Latitude
Barcelona   41°23'N        2°11'E
Beirut      33°53'13"N    35°30'47"E
Brisbane    27°28'04"S   153°01'41"E
Mallacoota  37°33'0"S    149°45'0"E
There are many online latitude/longitude distance calculators. I used this one.

[@] American and British readers can use these conversions to express surface data in square miles: 
           |             To
From       | kilometer²   mile²   hectare
kilometer² |     1        0.386      100
mile²      |     2.589    1          258.9
hectare    |     0.01     0.004        1

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