Measuring the impact of the global wildfire crisis

Aug 23, 2023, 9:22am EDT
REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Jeronimo Gonzalez/

Wildfires have ravaged northeastern Greece for the past four days, killing at least 20 people. Efforts to stop the fires, which are approaching Athens, have been hindered by the winds that whip up the flames and scorching temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). They are the latest in a string of blazes that have decimated swaths of Southern Europe and North America this summer, forcing tens of thousands to flee.

Wildfires both emit greenhouse gasses and destroy the forests that could absorb them. Europe’s more than 1,100 summer fires destroyed a wooded area of close to 3,000 square kilometers, capable of absorbing 2.3 million tonnes of CO2 per year. “When we add the fires in Canada, the United States, Africa, Asia and Australia to those in Europe, it seems that the situation is getting worse every year,”1 the head of the Italian Society of Environmental Geology said.

This year’s Canadian wildfire season has been the largest on record with almost 14 million hectares — an area larger than all of Greece — burned. The conditions that caused the spike in wildfires were made at least twice as likely due to human-caused climate change, according to a group of scientists. “The word ‘unprecedented’ doesn’t do justice to the severity of the wildfires in Canada this year,” a member of the World Weather Attribution team said. “From a scientific perspective, the doubling of the previous burned area record is shocking.”2

The wildfires in Maui — previously a rare occurrence but now increasingly likely — could have a destabilizing impact on the island’s economy, raising already high home prices and insurance costs. Rising global temperatures, however, also make tropical storms likelier and wetter, potentially wreaking havoc on local economies throughout the southern U.S. “We’re looking at a multi-hazard situation, where we’re being hit by a string of different events over a short period of time,” an expert at Johns Hopkins University said. “It’s like a double or triple whammy, and when they happen frequently or at the same time, the negative effects are compounded.”3