SOLVE magazine Issue 01 2020 - Page 25

SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: CLIMATE CHANGE In the summer of 2018, parts of Britain began to combust. The month of May was the warmest on record, June was the hottest in decades and, by July, the nation was gripped by a heatwave, with many counties experiencing drought. On Saddleworth Moor in Greater Manchester, one of the largest wildfires in living memory raged for over three weeks. The initial fire was extinguished on the day it started, but it smouldered, unseen, in dry peat underground – then returned with a vengeance, wild and almost impossible to control. As the fire approached the town of Stalybridge, 150 people had to be evacuated from 50 homes – a significant local effort to evacuate safely as smoke blanketed the area. It was only when it rained that firefighters were able to gain control over the inferno. And this was not an isolated incident. In late May on the Isle of Skye something rarely witnessed in Britain occurred, a ‘crown fire’ – flames speeding across treetops. Between 24 June and 2 July more than 100 other wildfires were reported around the nation, and science tells us that extreme wildfires will become much more common. Dr Mark Hardiman, Senior Lecturer in Geography, says climate change models, which have been running since the 1970s, are being borne out in reality: “The world is changing in our lifetimes.” The pressing question, says Dr Hardiman, is “how to manage this change”. Feeling the heat Dr Hardiman notes that the UK’s 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2002, and the continuing climate change trajectory indicates that south-east England, including London and Portsmouth, will develop more Mediterranean weather complexions – and quite soon. Climate models, which are becoming more advanced and accurate as computing power and data analysis advances, show that what we saw as a heatwave in 2018 will be a normal summer by the 2040s. Inherent in this is the higher wildfire risk owing to increasing amounts of dry, flammable vegetation littering forest floors. “Whether from lightning strikes or from people setting fires they don’t control, Britain is going to become more flammable. I don’t think people realise how vulnerable this landscape is to fire,” says Dr Hardiman. The implications are stark. For example, in Surrey – the most wooded county in Britain – many houses are next to woodlands. In years to come, they will be increasingly at risk of wildfire. “So there are all kinds of considerations for the future – from how and where new housing is planned, to the question of whether or not we need to introduce ‘prescribed burning’ on moors and in woodlands to reduce fuel loads.” Part of Dr Hardiman’s research has been to look back into prehistory when fire was more common in a warmer, hotter Britain. This research is in its early stages, but already he has charcoal evidence of large New UK warning system Dr Mark Hardiman is co-investigator in a recently established research team funded by the National Environment Research Council (NERC) to develop a wildfire danger rating system (WFDRS) for the UK. The system is being developed in response to the elevated risk of wildfire in the UK. It will be designed specifically for UK fuels and the complex land-cover mosaics and infrastructure that exist in this country, along with changing climate and land-use patterns. Danger ratings assess fuel loads and weather to provide estimates of flammability and likely fire behaviour under different conditions. These danger ratings can inform land-use management and the resourcing needs of fire and rescue services, and can feed into strategic planning by local and national governments. This project – Toward a UK Fire Danger Rating System: Understanding Fuels, Fire Behaviour and Impacts – started in January 2020 and will undertake the fundamental science and analyses required for building a UK-specific WFDRS. In announcing the project, NERC noted that while wildfires have traditionally been perceived as a threat to regions such as Southern Europe or Australia, there is an increasing global wildfire threat, and that includes the UK. From April 2009 to March 2017, more than 250,000 wildfire incidents were dealt with by the fire and rescue services in England alone – and that was before the summer of 2018. Response costs for vegetation fires in Great Britain are now put at £55 million a year. The solutions going forward will be interdisciplinary. It’s about engineers, scientists, land and environment managers working together and, probably, globally. – Mark Hardiman PHOTO: HELEN YATES wildfires as far back as the end of the last Ice Age. The challenge is how to interpret this geological record. Britain is today more forested than it has been for centuries, so Dr Hardiman hopes the past may help to show what fire can do when the climate changes as abruptly as it has over recent decades. The difference this time, however, is the capacity for science to establish a managed response: “The solutions going forward will be interdisciplinary. It’s about engineers, scientists, land and environment managers working together and, probably, globally,” he says. ISSUE 1 / 2020 25