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Once-in-a-century UK wildfire threats could happen most years by end of century - University of Reading

Extremely hot and dry conditions that currently put parts of the UK in the most severe danger of wildfires once a century could happen every other year in a few decades’ time due to climate change, new research has revealed.

A study, led by the University of Reading, predicting how the danger of wildfires will increase in future showed that parts of eastern and southern England may be at the very highest danger level on nearly four days per year on average by 2080 with high emissions, compared to once every 50-100 years currently.

Wildfires need a source of ignition which is difficult to predict, so wildfire risk is typically measured by the likelihood that a fire would develop after a spark of ignition. This fire danger is affected by weather conditions. As temperatures rise and summer rainfall decreases, conditions highly conducive to wildfire could be nearly five times more common in some regions of the UK by the latter part of the century.

In the driest regions, this could put habitats at risk for up to four months per year on average, the scientists found.

Professor Nigel Arnell, a climate scientist at the University of Reading who led the research, said: “Extremely hot and dry conditions that are perfect for large wildfires are currently rare in the UK, but climate change will make them more and more common. In future decades, wildfires could pose as much of a threat to the UK as they currently do in the south of France or parts of Australia. This increased fire danger will threaten wildlife and the environment, as well as lives and property, yet it is currently underestimated as a threat in many parts of the UK. This research highlights the growing importance of taking the threat of wildfires seriously in the UK, as they are likely to be an increasing problem in future.”

'Exceptional Danger'

In the new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, scientists looked at how often different regions of the UK would experience conditions that made it highly likely that any wildfire that occurred would become established. They calculated future fire danger based on the latest UKCP18 climate scenarios with both low and high emissions of greenhouse gases, using a version of the Met Office’s Fire Severity Index which is used to define levels of wildfire danger.

They found the average number of ‘very high’ danger days each year will increase significantly in all parts of the UK by 2080. Excluding London, southern and eastern England were predicted to be worst affected, with the average number of danger days more than quadrupling, up to 111 days in the South East and 121 days in the East of England on average.

Read the paper: Arnell, N., Freeman, A., Gazzard, R. (2021); ‘The effect of climate change on indicators of fire danger in the UK’; Environmental Research Letters; https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/abd9f2

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