Nearly double the usual winter wildfires, triple the acreage burned in northern India

India’s Forest Service has reported 1,006 wildfire alerts to the northern state of Uttarakhand since November 1, according to the Times of India. That number is up from the 556 wildfire alerts the service reported during the same time last year.

The increase is part of a worrying and destructive cycle that has escalated in the area for the past six years. Uttarakhand has had triple the acres burned by wildfires since 2017, worsened by its first-ever repeated occurrence of winter wildfires, or wildfires outside of the state’s usual fire season of February 15 to June 15.

“The unusual shift in the fire season may be linked to different reasons including climate change, the lockdown, or too much human intervention in the forests,” Arti Chaudhary, the head of Silviculture and Forest Resource Management Division at the Forest Research Institute, told the Times. “A five-year study across 15 states of the country that witness forest fires, including Uttarakhand, has been initiated to thoroughly understand the actual reasons behind this shift, as it has been recorded all over the country.”

The winter wildfires also contributed to the state’s above-average wildfire carbon emissions in 2021. Uttarakhand’s wildfires emitted an estimated 0.2 megatonnes of carbon in March 2021 alone, breaking a record set in 2003, according to Copernicus Climate Change Service scientist Mark Parrington.

Northern India’s skies took on a hazy hue in November caused in part by the unusual wildfire shift, NASA satellites show. The haze is reportedly a seasonal occurrence caused by urban pollution entering the atmosphere when seasonal weather patterns trap air pollution near the ground, but smoke from the unseasonal wildfires made the air quality even worse.

“The World Health Organization considers 15 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to be a safe limit,” said NASA. “But ground-based air quality monitors routinely measured levels that exceeded 300 and, at times, 500 micrograms per cubic meter in November.”

northern India, NASA image
Northern India, NASA image

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