With a boundless environment of carbon-rich greenery and seasonally dry climates supported by a coating of an oxygenated atmosphere, the planet we live on is essentially a flammable ball of rock in space. Despite vast oceans of water, the human race seem determined to inflame these conditions into the perfect storm for widespread and uncontrollable blazes.
Fuelled by our insatiable need for faster production, more stuff and a way to power it all, human activity on the planet over the last 200 years has managed to heat our highly combustable planet to an untenable point. With hottest temperatures recorded in human history, our actions have exacerbated the conditions perfect for fire to lay waste to the earth. Global warming is creating kindling from trees ravaged by drought and viruses that thrive in the hotter climates, drier atmospheres to fan the flames and evaporate water supplies, then all that’s needed is a fire starter, be it a volcanic eruption, strike of lightning or an unattended barbecue.
Wild fires have been exploding in occurrence around the world and have been getting progressively more extreme over the last couple decades. Across Southern California, Portugal, Australia and most recently, the Peak District, the planet is igniting under the strain of unnatural conditions. It’s what the scientists have been warning for decades, and this month, as Saddleworth Moor continues to consume the landscape above Manchester, the threat is inching closer to home.
The area, over years of monoculture planting of heather to encourage the grouse population for which tickets are sold upwards of £1000 to shoot, has been turned from a diverse area of natural flora into an entire expanse of kindling from one flammable plant. Stripped of natural systems that have over millions of years evolved together to create an ecosystem that can regulate itself against fires. As the decayed remnants of vegetation like heather, peat, that was once mined for its slow-burning properties as a fuel, is now burning underneath the moorlands and fuelling the fire.
Fire has often been a benefit for the natural ecosystem, effectively pruning back vegetation and allowing new growth to thrive. The nitrogen produced provides plants rich nutrients, and has often been seen as a benefit to the evolution of species. Human-controlled burning of areas is often undertaken in order to rejuvenate plant life and to minimise the amount of flammable material. This has been a common occurrence along Saddleworth Moor in order to regulate plant life. But human interference in the natural order of things has resulted in super-charged unnatural conditions that make wildfires dangerously more extreme and damaging. In the Amazon Rainforest, deforestation to make way for land and timber, combined with drought, has created a highly flammable situation that threatens to burn more than half of the rainforest within the next 10 years.
In a devastatingly ironic turn of fate, wildfires actually fuel climate change. As plant life that has sucked up carbon from the atmosphere burns, it is all released suddenly, rapidly increasing the amount of carbon in the environment. In the 90s in Indonesia alone, wildfires oozed out up to 40% of the worlds carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Peaty bogs, like that along the Peak District, are incredibly effective at storing up carbon, in the UK they hold around 5.5 billion tonnes, over half of the country’s entire carbon storage. In Saddleworth Moor, filled with peaty bogs that have absorbed massive amounts of carbon from Manchesters industrial past, the effects of the release of this into the atmosphere is massive.
Wildfires are immensely dangerous to the surrounding ecology, the planets conditions and human health. The resulting soil erosion increases the risk of floods and landslides, and the plumes of smoke and airborne particles can reek havoc for years after the fire is extinguished. Hospitals around Sydney have swiftly become accustomed to a massive increase of admissions of people with breathing difficulties as a presumed result of the sheer amount of rouge fires they are exposed to in the surrounding area. The health implications of the years of stored toxins from the peat along Saddleworth Moor is undetermined, but scientists and health experts are predicting that the particulates could have long-term health implications for those exposed.
It could take many more weeks for the fires along the north of the Peak District to be fully snuffed out, exasperated by the dry heat of our record summer. With more and more extreme natural phenomena set to increase parallel to the warming climate, emissions need to be curbed right now, along with human activities that allow for the conditions that turn our green spaces into a 300 mile long tinderbox.