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Hawaii Is A Tragic Warning To Us All
There are wildfire ticking-time bombs like Maui all over the globe.
By now, you have probably heard about what’s happened to the beautiful island of Maui in Hawaii. For those who somehow missed this colossal event, on the 8th of August 2023, this island paradise was scorched by unprecedentedly fierce wildfires, leaving thousands without homes and taking many lives. But there is a sinister backdrop to this tragedy. 2023 is the year climate change really started to bite. It is, by far in a way, the warmest year on record. This insane heat has driven intense heatwaves, extensive droughts and deadly wildfires over the entire globe. Many are now asking if Hawaii’s horrific firestorm was caused by man-made climate change, and if so, what does this mean for the future?
Hawaii is no stranger to wildfires, but this is by far the most deadly and destructive in its history. It destroyed the city of Lahaina, which was the former capital of the kingdom of Hawaii. In this one city alone, 2,700 structures, including homes, hospitals and places of work, were burnt to the ground. As of writing, 96 people are confirmed dead. However, far more will likely be confirmed soon as there are still around a thousand people missing, and the search and rescue are still in the early days, as teams with cadaver dogs have covered just three per cent of the search area. The fires were finally quelled by the 13th, allowing the survivors to venture back to what they called home. But all that is left is ash and embers for miles around.
Needless to say, the people of Maui need all the help they can get right now. The brilliant Emily Atkin of Heated interviewed a seventh-generation indigenous Hawaiian living in O’ahu about the tragedy, and he recommended the Maui Community Power Recovery Fund to support the victims and help them get back on their feet. If you want to help the people of Maui get back on their feet, that’s the place to go.
So, why did this wildfire happen, and why was it so deadly?
Well, officials are investigating, and no doubt detailed reports on their findings will be out soon. Until this report is out, we can’t say for certain the exact factors at play and what is to blame. But, there are two huge trends that experts have pointed out are likely to blame. Sadly, both of these are driven by us.
Firstly, climate change (which is happening, and we are 100% responsible for, I know you are better than to ignorantly think otherwise). As the world heats up, it changes the water cycle. For some places, this means more rain; living in Britain, I can attest to this. However, most locations, like much of the US, including Hawaii, will experience less rainfall and even droughts thanks to a warming world. This lack of water causes once verdant landscapes to be rendered into a dry tinderbox, begging for a spark. This is precisely what happened to Maui, as a fifth of the island was in a severe drought before the wildfire.
It is hard to say if this drought is 100% caused by climate change. Our meteorological models don’t allow us to make such claims. But, the models and experts all agree that climate change is making droughts worldwide more intense, frequent, and longer lasting. They also agree that climate change significantly affected Maui’s recent droughts.
As climate change starts to sink in and irrevocably change our planet, these droughts, and therefore wildfires, are going to get significantly worse. Some researchers are predicting that by 2100 there will be a 50% increase in wildfires as the world gets drier and drier.
But here’s the thing. Not all plants turn into super flammable fuel in a drought. In fact, much of Hawaii’s and Maui’s native plants are incredibly fire-resistant, even when completely desiccated. This is because the whole of Hawaii is prone to wildfires, and so they evolved over millions of years to avoid being burned alive. But in the 1800s, much of Maui was turned into sugar plantations, pushing this native vegetation out. These plantations are now closed, but the native plants haven’t grown back, and instead, invasive and exotic species have taken their place. Sadly, these species are incredibly flammable, and experts say they were a significant reason why these recent wildfires were so powerful and why they grew so exceptionally quickly.
Sadly, this trend of wildfire-resistant native plants being replaced by flammable invasive species is happening worldwide at alarming rates. The massive wildfires in Portugal and Chile over the past few years have been attributed to a large number of invasive pines and eucalypts in the area planted by humans. These trees are stacked full of volatile organic compounds; these not only give them their signature scent but also make them massively flammable.
This is why Hawaii is a warning for us all. We aren’t just changing the climate; we are changing the ecologies of the nature around us. As such, we are creating the perfect storm for frequent, widespread and even more deadly wildfires.
There are a growing number of people like Ron DeSantis who dismiss climate change as a “politicisation of weather.” These people terrify me with their ignorance, as tragedies like this show that the climate, ecology and weather around us have the power to kill, flatten cities and destroy economies, and such very much need to be in the political sphere. We have the technology and know how to mitigate or avoid these damages. For example, Maui will likely be rebuilt and regrown with native plants, fire breaks, more early warning systems and more fire-resistant structures. But as the climate starts to degrade rapidly, we need to take a proactive stance, not a reactive stance, and that starts with governments learning their lesson from disasters like Maui’s and taking the lead.
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