When the lush and tropical Maui found itself engulfed by the most deadly wildfires in U.S. history, the world was again reminded of the harsh reality of global climate change.
Regardless of what one may believe is the cause of the worldwide summer of fire, it is undeniable that this year’s wildfire season is unlike any other in recent memory. Whether it be the fires sweeping across the sunny Mediterranean coastlines, the fires which have engulfed much of eastern Canada, or the recent fires in the Hawaiian archipelago, it is undeniable that the world has been burning at an alarming rate.
In Maui’s northwestern coastline, the fires have grown large enough to swallow up the historic town of Lahaina. So relentless were these flames that the town’s residents were forced to flee into the surronding ocean, as reported by the Associated Press (AP). Many of these residents also stated that they never received an official warning “before it was too late” as reported by CNN’s Jake Tapper in a recent state-of-union address.
In recent years, the tropical islands have experienced an uptic in the number of annual wildfires, each of which have grown in their extent and severity. Whilst the continental United States has always experienced outbreaks of scorching and uncontrollable infernos, the tropical climate of Hawaii has historically prevented the outbreak of said fires.
For the United States, the devastating effects of periodic wildfires have become a grim formality. The growing number of annual fires throughout the West Coast sits at the forefront of the national conception of global climate change. The state of California, for example, has become synonymous with inferno. From 2016 to 2019 alone, the number of fires increased from 669,534 to 1,975,086 and only subsided in 2019 as the decade-long California Drought ended. Compared to years past, the wildfire season in California has been relatively subdued. According to official reports, the 210,471 acres of land burned this year is a 53% decrease compared to the five-year averages.
As for the Maui fires, this major decrease of fires in California makes the events on the island all the more concerning. As was already stated, California is dominated by a geography that is largely defined by its vulnerability to wildfires. The Hawaiian archipelago is, in simple terms, not.
In the last few years, the tropical islands have experienced an uptick in annual wildfires, each growing in extent and severity. While the continental United States has always experienced outbreaks of scorching and uncontrollable infernos, the topical climate of Hawaii has historically prevented the outbreak of said fires. Over the past century, however, the worsening of periodic droughts and the shift in the global climate has left the archipelago vulnerable to fires worse than those found across California and the Pacific Northwest.
Alongside the infamous fires common in U.S.western continental lands, the Maui fires have joined a string of flames spanning across the Mediterranean coastline. This year’s fires have been terrible in places like Southern Italy and Northern Africa, but are fundamentally unsurprising. These regions are like California because they have prolonged, annual dry seasons, which are inevitably followed by periodic outbreaks of wildfires. Without downplaying the tragedies in Greece, Spain, or Algeria, the outbreak of fires was shocking in their scope and scale alone.
The Maui wildfires are shocking for two entirely different reasons. First, the fires are amongst the most deadly in US history. As of Sunday, the official death toll peaked at 93 deaths, and the Coast Guard has estamated that some two thousand structures were destroyed across the island. Despite being much smaller than the ones found across the Pacific, they have killed more Americans than other fires in the past century.
Secondly, and more importantly, said devastation took place in a land dominated by a wet and tropical climate. The Maui fires are a microcosm for the true extent of the 21st Century’s dramatic climate shifts and how these shifts will leave large swaths of the world vulnerable to an unpredictable and violent weather.
At first glance, one would likely assume that the wildfires in Alaska are related to the ones in Hawaii. Such an assumption, however, could not be farther from the truth. Like the drier Mediterranean climate zone, the icy tundras and frozen desserts which dominate the Frontier State are also vulnerable to wildfire. Research has shown that the tundra fires tend to follow warm summer and are most common in regions where lightning is prevalent. The number of hot temperatures during this time of the year has naturally increased in accordance with the anual rise in average global temperatures. Alongside an increase in the number of fires in Alaska over recent years, the destructive capacity of these fires has also grown, threatening the population centers along the coast.
Since the turn of the century, at least half of the worst fires in the State’s history have occurred. An estimated three million acres of land have burned since 1950. To the south, the story in Canada has been even worse. Over 20 million acres burned in what has been the worst wildfire in modern Canadian history this year.
Few will ever forget the images taken in New York City after the smoke blanketed the entirety of the Northeastern United States. The cause of Canadian fires is almost identical to the ones in neighboring Alaska: warmer and longer summers left the Canadian forests drier and more vulnerable to lightning and man-made fires.
Rising annual temperatures will only prolong summers and worsen droughts and subsequent fires over the years. On a recent report from the World Meteorological Organization, countries and communities across the world should prepare for and get use to a more turbulent and unpredictable climate. For tropical regions like the Pacific islands, this means a drop in annual rainfall and more dehydrated vegetation. For Mediterranian regions like California or North Africa, this means that the already dry summers will face desert-like conditions.
The base cause is the same, i.e., the rapid shift in the world’s climate, and the expected outcome will most likely worsen.
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