In association with The Met Office

Ben Fogle asks "Are forest fires likely to increase in frequency due to climate change?"

We recently went to meet Ben Fogle to try and answer his climate questions. Watch the video to see what the scientists have to say!


Ben: I’m Ben Fogle for My Climate & Me. On my travels I seem to be seeing more and more forest fires from Brazil to Australia. Are they good or bad for the environment? Why do they happen in rainforests? And most importantly, are they increasing in frequency due to climate change?’

Rob: So Gillian, thank you so much for joining us for a coffee and helping to answer Ben Fogle’s question. Its slightly warmer conditions than when we were filming to be honest. So his first question was- Are all forest fires bad for the environment?

Gillian: Fire is a natural process which plays an important role in certain ecosystems, and indeed has helped to shape and define them. Plant species have adapted to survive or even to thrive in conditions where fire is common. Some trees are said to be fire dependent because they rely on it to be able to reproduce or regenerate. Fire affects the release of important nutrients – such as nitrogen – which plants need to grow.

Rob: So Gillian, can you give us some of the ways forest fires can affect the environment?

Gillian: Well, a very profound way in which fires can affect the environment is through the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. People use fire extensively for clearing land, and the large-scale conversion of forest into agricultural land is primarily achieved through fire. Trees and the soils contain carbon, and when the forest is cleared then carbon is released into the atmosphere from the trees and also from the soil below into the atmosphere. Total global carbon emissions from deforestation are significant, coming third behind energy and industry. So when you have more carbon in the atmosphere and less forest to take it up, then you’re going to have more climate change.

Rob: So forest fires. Why do they occur in rainforests?

Gillian: When thinking about the ideal conditions for fire, tropical rainforests might not spring immediately to mind, as they are of course very rainy places. But, they’re not uniformly wet across the whole forest,or equally wet throughout the year. Fires in this region are strongly associated with deforestation. If conditions are right then fires set to burn small plots can escape and burn a larger area, opening up more of the forest further and making it susceptible to further damage. If the dry conditions persist for longer or are more intense than normal then you get more fires. So in Amazonia there have been a number of droughts over the last decade and during those years there was a lot of fire. 

Rob: So Gillian, the big question is, are forest fires likely to increase with climate change?

Gillian: Research has suggested that the risk of extremes like drought has been increased under climate change and is likely to continue in the future. But there remains a lot of uncertainty about how drought intensity and frequency – and hence “fire weather” - might change in the future. However we know that deforestation makes the fores tmore vulnerable to fires as well as opening it up to points of ignition. Under these circumstances, long changes in climate or short-term fluctuations and extremes could have a larger influence over the number and severity of fires than they would on an unbroken forest. So, reducing deforestation – as has been happening in the Brazilian Amazon over the last few years - will help to maintain a more resilient forest for now and into the
future.

Rob: So Gillian, thank you so much for answering Ben’s questions and I think I owe you another cup of tea now!


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