This summer, most people living in Europe do not need to read WWF reports or watch nature documentaries, in order to see the devastating impacts of climate change. Eerily summarized by Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, as raging wildfires approached Athens, birthplace of Hellenic civilization and the Olympic Games: “If there are even few people who have reservations about whether climate change is real, I call on them to come here and see."
There is, indeed, something exceptional about the newsreel of weather disasters, unfolding in front of our eyes in 2021 - as the World Meteorological Organization attested. In July, parts of Western Europe received 2 months-worth of rainfall in 2 days, while Northern Europe baked in an unprecedented heatwave, warming the waters of the Baltic to tropical 26.6°C. This was before massive wildfires erupted around the coasts of the Mediterranean - from Italy, to Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, causing the evacuation of major tourist areas, and dozens of deaths.
In the past, climate scientists often warned that one cannot blame any single meteorological disaster on human-caused climate change. This is changing as scientists are rapidly advancing a new generation of tools for statistical analysis and attribution of extreme weather events. Using thеse, we can state with confidence the likelihood that a specific event could have occurred with or without the global warming, caused by greenhouse gas emissions, and its atmospheric and oceanic effects. According to a continually updated map of more than 350 peer-reviewed attribution studies, hosted by CarbonBrief, 70% of 405 extreme weather events studied, were made more likely by anthropogenic climate change.
2021 disasters also show a clear link to climate change. A new climate scientists group led by Oxford University - the World Weather Attribution Initiative, classified the 2021 50°C “heat dome” in North America as “virtually impossible” without anthropogenic emissions. Meteorologists have categorized the heavy Western European floods as “totally untypical” for the regions affected, but “broadly consistent” with climate change trends, which already change “the definition of normal weather.” And the fires in Antalya, which, according to the EU Copernicus satellite-observation programme experts, reached “off the scale” intensity (at one point producing as much heat as 20 coal power plants of 1 gigawatt each!) occurred just a week after Turkey registered a sizzling 49.1°C temperature record.
Accepting the ever moving goal posts of “new normal” in extreme weather events like fires and floods is one thing, but adapting to them is a different story entirely. There are absolute limits to adaptation, not only for cities and communities, awash with flood debris and choked with smoke from wildfires, but also for natural ecosystems, which provide the foundation of human health, well-being and economic prosperity. Things will undoubtedly get progressively worse, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is warning that the planet could be on the verge of surpassing 1.5°C warming by the early 2030s, earlier than previous forecasts.
Forests are especially threatened as trees cannot migrate or easily adapt to changing climate conditions. Globally, the length of fire seasons has increased by 19% since 1979. According to a 2021 study, published in Nature Communications, European forests are showing increasing vulnerability to anthropogenic climate change - with 40% of forest stand biomass threatened by windthrows (wind storm events), 34% by fires and 26% by insect outbreaks. The situation is particularly alarming for forests in Southern Europe, where climate change-related “vulnerability hotspots” can create severe risks from storms for upland forests in the Alps, Balkans and Carpathians, and drive up fire hazards from Italy to Turkey and Ukraine.
This summer’s severe forest fires in the Mediterranean and Balkans, and the resulting losses of woodland habitat, human lives and wild species, as well as the massive increases in particulate matter air pollution, must convince citizens and governments to act, not only to contain the immediate threat to life and health, but also to bolster the adaptive capacity of our forests.
Launching a worldwide appeal for financial support to fight the Turkey fires, where 140 thousand hectares of forests have been lost in 7 days in more than 144 fire hotspots, WWF Turkey’s CEO Aslı Pasinli shared that, while current efforts of authorities and conservationists are focused on immediate relief, including providing rescue, medical care and shelter for people and wildlife, “There is much to be said and done once the emergency is over.”
In the aftermath of the massive Athens and Evia island fires, WWF Greece has initiated an urgent petition to the national government, supported by more than 50,000 citizens, asking for bold regulatory reforms, including creating local fire plans, drafting civilian firefighting volunteer systems, ceasing construction near vulnerable forests, which increases fire risk and endangers human lives, and massive restoration efforts for the burnt natural forests and woodlands.
In Bulgaria, where fires have decimated over 40 000 hectares since the start of the year and claimed the lives of 2 forest rangers, a combination of summer drought, heat waves and high winds have led to an increase by one third in the annual number of fires since 2015. Forest fires threaten recent major gains in the protection of old-growth forests. After a yearlong advocacy campaign by WWF Bulgaria, adaptive measures for forest and wetland ecosystems were included in the country’s National Recovery and Resilience plan. Still, support for large-scale adaptation measures like addressing the major vulnerability of the country’s artificial pine forests, monitored by WWF, is still lacking. “Restored wetlands and forests may prevent future fires and floods,” says Vesselina Kavrakova, CEO of WWF Bulgaria. “Which is why investing in ecosystem restoration for climate adaptation is so important.”
The real turning point in the battle to protect and adapt our European forests to fires and the other grave climate and anthropogenic hazards, will only come when we enlist the forests and natural ecosystems as our allies. Nature-based adaptation solutions are increasingly viewed as the main approach for tackling the climate and biodiversity crises locally, but these approaches currently exist only on paper in most European countries.
As 2019 and 2020 WWF reports on fire risks, vulnerability and management globally and in the Mediterranean bioregion, highlight the need to work with nature in order to reduce the incidence and severity of fires. Integrated land policies, reducing flammability of artificial plantations, strict law enforcement for natural forests and landscape-level restoration, employing native adapted species and agroforestry mosaic landscapes, can be a good start.
However, stopping forest loss will not be enough. As the IPCC Climate Change 2021 report makes abundantly clear, the Paris Agreement 1.5°C goal is slipping away. The new EU Forest Strategy for 2030 envisions planting 3 billion trees, to take up atmospheric carbon and make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050. This unprecedented, continent-scale effort, can only be successful, if we make sure that we are creating resilient forest ecosystems, climate-proofed against fire destruction and carbon release. Nations in South-East Europe, whose forests are on the fire frontier, must pay special attention!
For more information, contact: Apostol Dyankov firstname.lastname@example.org