Europe’s nature under threat as world suffers worst year on record for forest fires
The Joint Research Centre of the Commission presented the 20th edition of its Annual Report on Forest Fires in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, covering 2019. In what was the worst-ever year for forest fires around the world in recent history, over 400,000 hectares (ha) of Europe’s natural land was burnt and a record high number of nature protection areas were affected by wildfires. According to the findings of the report, climate change continued to affect the length and intensity of fire danger in Europe. By March, before the ‘fire season’ in most countries, the EU’s total burnt area was already above the annual average of the last 12 years. However, thanks to better preparedness and more efficient response, the 2019 season was one of the best ever in terms of preventing accidents and loss of life.
Key findings of the report
- National reporting from countries showed that Spain, Portugal and Poland recorded the highest number of fires in EU countries in 2019;
- Romania (73 444 ha burnt area) was the country with the greatest damage to its protected areas in 2019, according to the European Forest Fires Information System (EFFIS);
- Wildfires heavily affected Europe’s ‘Natura 2000‘ protected areas: With 159,585 ha burnt in 2019, nearly half of the total burnt area in the EU occurred within these key biodiversity zones;
- The 2019 season was, however, one of the best in terms of preventing accidents and loss of life: Only three casualties occurred due to wildfires in the countries included in the 2019 report.
The Copernicus Emergency Management Service rapid mapping was activated 35 times to help fight forest fires in 2019, the most activations of any year so far.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism was activated five times for forest fires and upgraded with rescEU in 2019, establishing a new European reserve which includes firefighting planes and helicopters.
The Biodiversity strategy proposed in May as part of the European Green Deal foresees actions to improve the health of European forests and strengthen our resilience to forest fires, and includes the target of planting at least 3 billion trees by 2030.
Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Centre, Mariya Gabriel, said: “For over twenty years the Joint Research Centre has worked with countries across Europe to provide the most up-to-date trends on forest fires, helping prevention efforts and lessening their devastating impacts when fires do occur. Changing weather associated with climate change is increasing the risk of forest fires around the world. Knowledge and scientific evidence are central to taking the most effective measures to prevent these fires, safeguard our forests, preserve biodiversity and protect lives.”
Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said: “Europeans have seen horrifying pictures of forest fires on the West coast of the US, Siberia, Australia and the Amazon region. But the fires have also hit hard the forests in Europe. Part of the answer to ensure this does not happen at such a harmful scale lies in protecting and managing our forests in a way to reduce their vulnerability to fires, allowing nature to also protect itself.”
Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, said: “Data and insights on forest fire risks and outbreaks are essential. They help us in prevention and preparedness, but also in responding more quickly and effectively when disastrous wildfires strike. With rescEU and our reinforced EU Civil Protection Mechanism we stand ready to assist, across Europe and beyond.”
The Commission’s Joint Research Centre provides a key contribution to wildfire disaster risk reduction in Europe and globally, through the development and operation of EFFIS and the Global Wildfire Information System (GWIS).
The Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa reports are a unique source of information for fire managers and policymakers in European and neighbouring countries. They provide official statistics of wildfire impacts, reported annually by the fire administrations in these countries.
Bloomberg: U.S. fights for influence in Africa
President Joe Biden’s administration is stepping up a campaign to build American influence in Africa, where the US has lost ground to its main rivals in what’s starting to look like a new Cold War, notes Bloomberg.
At a December summit with the continent’s leaders, Biden pledged a $55 billion support package for Africa.
The push to engage with the mineral-rich continent comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine – and the escalating standoff between the US and China – shake up global diplomacy. Both sides are seeking to win over non-aligned countries in places like Africa.
American officials have raised the Ukraine war with African leaders, and encouraged them to support Kyiv — though many African governments have opted to stay neutral, and some have longstanding ties with Russia that include arms purchases.
The US-China rivalry includes a race to secure minerals that are critical to green energy — Africa has some of the world’s biggest supplies — and a dispute over debt relief, as burdens for poor countries rise along with interest rates. Chinese lending to Africa helped countries develop and build infrastructure.
One example is the US focus on democracy promotion – it recently promised $165 million to support fair elections in Africa – combined with warnings about the destabilizing role of Russia’s Wagner Group, which is active in countries including Mali and the Central African Republic.
The US campaign is pushing up against deep-rooted ties. Countries like Egypt and Morocco have close trade relations with Russia. South Africa has permitted Russian and Chinese warships to carry out exercises in its waters.
Still, US officials have often shied away from publicly drawing direct contrasts with China.
That’s probably because African countries, like many other emerging nations in the Middle East, Asia or Latin America, aren’t receptive to a “with-us-or-against-us” approach. Having to pick sides could set back efforts to develop their economies, and they prefer to do business with both great-power camps.
We are witnessing the birth pangs of a new World Order
Unlike in the bipolar world during the Cold War, the behaviour of the majority is the most crucial factor that will determine the structure of the future international order, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.
The latest happenings in international politics may seem esoteric, like the secret ceremonies of Knights Templar of the medieval order. But they are anything but abstruse. It has dawned on most rational minds that the conflict in Ukraine is not intrinsic but symptomatic of an epochal struggle consequential to the making of the World Order.
On March 20, British Defence Minister Annabel Goldie stated in the House of Lords that her government would provide Ukraine with shells containing depleted uranium. Indeed, there is a tragic precedent — NATO’s use of depleted uranium shells while carpet-bombing Serbia during Yugoslavia’s dismemberment. (Today, the highest incidence of cancer in entire Europe occurs in Serbia.)
Britain, chafing under its free fall as a world-class power, is overzealous about power projection, and, fortuitously, Washington also desperately requires a ‘game changer’ to stave off defeat in Ukraine. But madness has limits. If the Anglo-Saxon bravado translates into action, there is bound to be a fearsome Russian reaction.
Suffice to say, we are tiptoeing toward use of tactical nuclear weapons in modern warfare, with all its horrific implications for South Asia. India must voice concern over the Anglo-Saxon move.
Again, on March 14, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia (AUKUS) unveiled the details of their plan to create a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. AUKUS is undermining nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Alongside, AUKUS is also preparing for a military showdown with China.
Furthermore, Japan continues to ratchet up its hostile power projection vis-a-vis Russia and China, while simultaneously returning to the path of militarisation which it abandoned after World War II. Whether New Delhi voiced its concerns to the Australian and Japanese Prime Ministers visiting India recently we do not know.
There is another side to this, too. For, AUKUS is coercing the IAEA Secretariat into endorsement on the relevant safeguards issues. This is yet another instance of the Western powers systematically dismantling the United Nations system to serve their geopolitical interests.
Plainly put, the US is replacing the UN with NATO as a global security organisation, anticipating that its capacity to dominate the world body is fast diminishing. NATO’s arrival in Asia is already foretold.
Two other major developments last fortnight — the reinvigoration of the “no limits” strategic partnership between Russia and China, and the China-brokered Saudi Arabia-Iran normalisation pact — are of a different genre, but signify the shape of things to come in India’s external security environment.
One lifts the veil on the military-political confrontation between Russia and the West which is going to shape international politics in the 21st century, while the second development in India’s extended neighbourhood carries a sense of immediacy as the harbinger of international politics being shaped by the many states that do not seek to align themselves with the banners of the opposing sides. Here lies the germane seed of the new world order for countries such as India, stresses M.K. Bhadrakumar.
Shedding light on the Sun
As questions abound about the Earth’s closest star, scientists are seeking answers critical to forecasting solar flares that threaten satellites and other electronics.
By ANTHONY KING
For most of humankind’s history, it has been hard to explain the Sun as anything other than a powerful deity.
For instance, the ancient Greek god Helios – the personification of the Sun – raced his chariot across the sky to create night and day, whereas the ancient Egyptians worshipped their falcon-headed sun god, Ra, as creator of the universe.
Since then, science has revealed that, for example, the Sun on average turns on its axis once every 28 days. But at its equator, the hot plasma ball rotates once every 25 days, while it takes around 35 days at the poles, creating a swirling soup of piping hot plasma.
Nonetheless, the power of the Sun can still offer surprises, with blasts fierce enough to fry communication satellites or electronics on Earth. Scientists warn of more powerful solar flares as a peak of activity approaches in late 2024 and early 2025.
‘There is this turbulent motion inside our star, called convection, that is a bit like how water wrinkles just before it boils,’ said Professor Sacha Brun, director of research at CEA Paris-Saclay, part of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.
An infamous magnetic storm that hit Earth in September 1859, known as the Carrington Event, triggered spectacular auroras far from polar regions and sizzled telegraph systems around the world.
There have been more since. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm caused a blackout in Quebec, Canada, according to Brun.
Greater knowledge about the Sun is needed to predict and understand such events.
That swirling ball of hydrogen and helium is also unimaginably hot – with core temperatures of 15 million °C. And it’s ginormous – more than 1 million Earths fit inside the Sun.
Its peaceful presence on a summer’s day belies the intense nuclear reactions at its core that generate vast amounts of energy. The Sun is a churning ball of plasma, with gases so hot that electrons are booted out of atoms, generating intense magnetic explosions from its surface that spew billions of tonnes of matter into space.
As it spins, the Sun’s mechanical energy turns into magnetic energy – a bit like the dynamo on a bicycle light, where pedal motion is converted into magnetic energy.
On the Sun, twisty ribbons of magnetism rise and break out as sunspots, dark patches at the surface where the magnetic field is 3 000 times more intense than in the surrounding areas.
Sunspots can trigger those solar flares that damage electrical equipment. But this activity isn’t constant.
‘The magnetism of the Sun is variable over an 11-year cycle,’ said Brun, an astrophysicist.
Over that cycle, coronal mass ejections rise in frequency, from one every three days to an average of three per day at its peak.
‘As we go further into the cycle, more outbursts will emerge from the Sun,’ Brun said. ‘People don’t realise that the Earth bathes in the turbulent magnetic atmosphere of our star.’
So there’s an obvious need to anticipate when such solar storms approach. For example, a solar flare in February 2022 knocked out 40 SpaceX commercial satellites by destroying their electronics.
Those energetic particles take just 15 minutes to reach Earth from the Sun. The threat posed by magnetic clouds usually takes a few days, offering more time to brace for any onslaught.
Brun co-leads an EU-funded project called WHOLE SUN to understand the interior and exterior layers of the only star in the Earth’s solar system.
Running for seven years through April 2026, the initiative focuses on the inner turbulence of the Sun and the complex physics that turns the inner turmoil into magnetism in the outer layers.
This requires the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Yet forecasting solar flares means that scientists gain greater understanding of the insides of the Sun.
A star is born
What about the distant past of the Sun? It has been around for 4.6 billion years – 100 million years before Earth. Where and how it was formed would seem to be an impenetrable mystery.
Not so, according to Dr Maria Lugaro at the Konkoly Observatory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Lugaro, an Italian astrophysicist, is researching this very question in the EU-funded RADIOSTAR project. It began in 2017 and runs through August this year.
‘We believe that the Sun wasn’t born alone, but was born in a star-forming region where there’s lots of stars,’ Lugaro said.
She is looking into this past by examining chemical fossils in meteorites today.
Radioactive atoms are unstable. They release energy and decay into so-called daughter atoms, over a certain length of time, which are measurable. The daughters are therefore chemical fossils, offering information about long-gone radioactive atoms.
Lugaro’s research suggests that the Sun originated in a stellar nursery that contained lots of siblings, including exploding stars – supernovas. But digging into the Sun’s history first requires finding meteorites, bits of rock formed before Earth.
These meteorites can contain traces of the radioactive atoms such as aluminium-26 and hafnium-182. It is known that these lived only a certain length of time. Together, traces of such atoms can be used as a radioactive clock to compute the age of the stars that made them, relative to the age of the Sun.
Some radioactive atoms are made in only certain types of stars. Their presence in meteorites helps to recreate a picture of the Sun’s birthplace, albeit one that’s up for debate.
It may be that the Sun was birthed amid dust and gas clouds in a tempestuous region alongside supergiant stars and exploding stars.
Within perhaps 20 million years, the different stars begin to make their own way out of the nursery. But things are far from being scientifically settled.
‘Every year there’s debate: is the Sun normal or is it a weird star?’ said Lugaro. ‘It’s quite fun.’
Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council (ERC). The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
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