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The Environmental Impact of Wildfires

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

The wildfires in California and Oregon are devastating, not only to the people forced to evacuate, but to our planet too, negatively affecting natural life and the atmosphere. Learn more about why these fires are so much worse now and what exactly they do to the environment


By Liv Valinsky


More than five million acres have burned so far in the wildfires along the west coast. As the sky fills with smoke and tens of thousands of people are displaced, the fires rage on. Not only are our daily lives impacted, but these wildfires can also have devastating effects on the environment and climate.


Wildfires are known to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the environment. Greenhouse gases are gases in the atmosphere that allow sunlight to pass through to Earth, but trap the heat inside the atmosphere too. An increasing amount of carbon dioxide can cause global warming. Scientists have estimated that wildfires spanning between 1997-2016 emitted about 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


Wildfires also drastically affect natural areas. The burning of trees not only contributes to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but also removes some of the natural barriers we have against global warming. Trees and plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen as part of their natural lives. With a reduced population of plants in these areas due to the fires, less carbon dioxide is being processed and removed from the atmosphere, while more is being released.


Fires in these specific habitats lead to change. Some animals benefit, needing the small fires to rejuvenate their habitat, but even those suited for these changes struggle to adapt to the strength and length of these vicious wildfires. The change invoked by wildfires can be very beneficial to older ecosystems, as areas can be revitalized and this promotes new life. Change can also mean death when it involves species in the area. Once a group of organisms dies out or migrates as a result of fires, other species are quick to find a new home or become extinct. The complicated food chains and webs of a habitat lead to very dependent cause-and-effect relationships.


While wildfires have been shown to be effectively helpful in the lives of many organisms, the sheer power and strength of these fires is enough to completely wipe out life. Controlled burns are used to reduce the likelihood of a large wildfire breaking out and also contribute to the ecosystem by bringing new life, especially in the soil. Wildfires of this size and heat that are currently burning, do little more than destroy areas and cause animals to flee, desperate to find a new home. Wildfires are in direct opposition of controlled burns, as they bring death, not new life.


Airborne soot from fires can drastically speed up the melting of ice and snow, and cause darkening of ice in the Arctic. Haze on the east coast is connected to these west coast fires, as well as the wildfires spreading to Idaho. Homes and businesses have been destroyed, and vast amounts of people have been forced to evacuate. These wildfires can have effects all over the world and in the atmosphere. Due to global warming, fire seasons are lasting longer, with fires burning hotter and spreading faster, causing more damage.


Sources:

Berwyn, Bob. “How Wildfires Can Affect Climate Change (and Vice Versa).” InsideClimate News, 12 March 2020, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/23082018/extreme-wildfires-climate-change-global-warming-air-pollution-fire-management-black-carbon-co2#:~:text=Wildfires%20emit%20carbon%20dioxide%20and,effects%20on%20warming%20and%20cooling.


National Geographic Staff. “What do wild animals do in wildfires?” National Geographic, 8 September 2020 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/09/150914-animals-wildlife-wildfires-nation-california-science/#close


“More Than Five Million Acres Have Burned in West Coast’s Wildfires.” The New York Times, 15 September 2020

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/us/oregon-fires-california.html


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