Lightning strikes are one of the main causes of wildfire in Australia. As the planet’s temperature warms, the frequency of lightning strikes is expected to grow with it.
Currently, lightning strikes the earth’s surface nearly eight million times a day. This number is expected to ‘dramatically increase’ as global temperatures rise, according to a study published by Science. The U.S., for example, could experience a 50% increase in the number of lightning strikes by the end of the century, if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed.
This increase is already being felt in Australia and has implications for how we plan for, and fight fire. Because they start from a single point, lightning caused fires are initially small and can be easily contained before they turn into blazes, if there are ground crews or planes or helicopters available. As was shown by last summer’s fires, in a bad season, we simply don’t have enough resources to do this.
The increase in lightning strikes is directly affecting mountain and other wild and largely intact ecosystems in Australia, like the south west of lutruwita/ Tasmania.
“Something changed about 2000″.
As was reported by Lisa Cox, writing in The Guardian:
The amount of vegetation burnt by fires caused by lightning strikes in Tasmania’s world heritage area has increased dramatically this century, according to research led by the University of Tasmania.
The study, published in the academic journal Fire, warns that the state’s heritage forests face rising threats because of the tendency toward drier summers and that the probability of “catastrophic” fires could increase as a result of more fuel igniting from lightning strikes.
Researchers at the University of Tasmania looked at historic fire data collected by the Tasmanian parks and wildlife service from 1980 to 2016. The records detail the number of fires each year, the area burnt and what caused the fire. From the year 2000, they found an increase in the number of lightning-caused fires and an increase in the average size of the fires, “resulting in a marked increase in the area burnt”.
Their data shows only a few fires caused by lightning were recorded in the 1980s and 1990s, compared with almost 20 that were recorded in 2015-16.
There were major fires caused by lightning in 2000-01, 2006-07, 2012-13 and 2015-16.
“Lightning is now responsible for the majority of the area burned in the TWWHA [Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area],” they state.
Fire ecologist Jenny Styger, the paper’s lead author, said: “Something changed about 2000″.
“It was the tipping point at which lightning started to become the predominant cause of fire ignition.”
(Background on this story is available here).
The same situation exists on mainland Australia. It is estimated that more than 90% of snow gum woodland and forest has been burnt in the last decade, and that some of these areas have been burnt multiple times.
And, as this new research points out, this is sadly a global phenomenon –
‘In the fastest-warming part of the planet, the Arctic has reported an increase in lightning over the past decade. A recent study suggests that the number of annual summertime lightning strikes above a latitude of 65° North rose from around 35,000 in 2010 to nearly 250,000 in 2020, Nature reported.
Lightning causes fires. It also helps drive climate change
As reported in EcoWatch:
What should we do?
Of course, this simply underscores the need to get on with radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible.
We also need extra capacity to fight fires from the air. Australia should heed the recommendation from the Bushfire Royal Commission and develop a ‘sovereign’ (Australian owned air fleet of planes and helicopters to fight fires.
Please sign this letter to the prime minister, urging him to establish a publicly owned air fleet.
We need more teams on the ground to stop small fires turning into blazes. NSW and Tasmania already have volunteer teams of remote area firefighters who support paid firefighters in tackling fires such as lightning strike ignitions.
Victoria should do the same and establish a volunteer remote area firefighting team.