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,
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.
– 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
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,”
ISSUE 1 / 2020