Wildfires have raged across Greece for seven straight days, prompting widespread evacuations, rescue flights of British tourists and warnings from officials that things could get worse.
While the cause of the fires has not been officially determined, local authorities have indicated that at least some of them may have been the work of arsonists.
But specialists in climate sciences and fire risks say it is undeniable that high temperatures and prolonged heat waves mean that fires in this Mediterranean country have spread faster and burned in larger areas.
Why are forest fires so severe in Greece?
Over the past few weeks, wildfires have raged in several parts of Europe – including Switzerland, Italy, Turkey, Croatia and Spain – as a heat wave has swept across the continent.
But Greece was the hardest hit. According to a government spokesperson, an average of 50 fires broke out per day for 12 consecutive days in July, with 64 fires recorded in one weekend.
said Dr Matthew Caswar at the Liverholm Center for Wildfires, Environment and Society at Imperial College The Independent Drought conditions make it easier for them to spread.
“The fire risk increases rapidly when there are prolonged periods of hot weather, allowing the soil and vegetation to completely dry out,” he said.
“Climate change has increased the intensity, frequency and duration of heat waves when they occur,” he added, with temperatures in the southern Greek mainland soaring as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) this month.
“A lot of the forest fires we’re seeing in Greece have been in areas with shrub vegetation,” said climate science expert Dr Nigel Arnell.
A University of Florida study found that spot fires tend to spread far beyond the fire’s original perimeter in areas where woody vegetation such as shrubs and trees replace herbaceous vegetation such as grasses.
Is man-made climate change to blame for the fires?
One of the best examples of anthropogenic or human-caused climate change contributing to fire activity comes from the western United States, said Cambridge professor Adam Pellegrini, an expert on forest ecosystems and climate change.
“A 2016 study looked at the area that burned in one year in the western forests, as well as the weather and drought,” he explained. The researchers ran a model that simulated climate with and without anthropogenic emissions (greenhouse gases).
“With these climate simulations, which have uncertainties, they found that there is a high probability that you wouldn’t see these fires that we’re seeing now, without climate change,” Dr. Pellegrini continued.
The study showed that human-induced climate change contributed to an additional 4.2 million hectares of forest affected by fires over the period 1984-2015 – twice the area of forest fires expected without it.
“It was done in the western United States, but these are the kinds of analyzes that are needed (for wildfires in Europe),” said Dr. Pellegrini. “I think people will now try to do that.”
An analysis by the World Weather Attribution Network found that recent heat waves in Europe and the United States would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change. According to the study, climate change means that this year’s heat wave in Europe was 2.5 degrees Celsius.
Can these extreme weather events be prevented?
The way to reduce the increase in heat and drought, and their frequency, is to stop greenhouse gas emissions, Dr. Pellegrini said, adding: “This is the number one way to do that.”
Better ways to adapt and mitigate damage from wildfires include controlled burns during cooler, wetter times of the year. “That way you’re burning fire fuel, so if there’s a really hot, dry year, hopefully the wildfires won’t be as severe,” he added.
Limitations include the high cost of controlled burns, as well as accessibility issues in remote regions such as Siberia, where wildfires have raged since last year.
Another way to reduce fire risk is to herd animals, explained Imperial College researcher Oliver Perkins. “In fire-prone areas of Spain, goat farmers are being paid, not to produce food but to reduce fire risk by grazing on flammable plants.”
Is there a risk of bushfires in the UK?
Dr Kaswar warned that almost every region in the world experiences more intense and more frequent hot weather, and the UK is no exception.
He added, “We witnessed record high temperatures and fires in the south of the United Kingdom last summer, and with the largest fires recorded in the country in the past few years.” “Unless we stabilize global temperatures by reducing global emissions to net zero, bushfires will continue to become a more present risk here in the UK and across many other parts of the world.