Two new studies published this week outline how the wildfires exacerbate climate change and how in turn, climate change exacerbates wildfires. It’s a vicious cycle that continues to harm not only nature but society as a whole. In the following post, we outline what we at Robotto noted in both of these studies, as well as where we see Robotto Fire’s part in finding a solution.
This week a new study was published on nature.com looking at changes in night-time fires, and the overall impact on the growing number and intensity of wildfires. In addition to this, the UN Environment Programme released a rapid response assessment, outlining extreme wildfire changes and predictions. At Robotto using technology to enhance firefighting, equipping firefighters with vital information in real-time is at the heart of what we do. Applying advanced AI systems to this global existential crisis stems from an understanding of how the vicious cycle wildfires have on climate change demands change. Reports such as the night-time fire study and the UN Environment Programme’s report only strengthen our commitment to using AI for good.
In this article, we outline how each of these reports notes not only the urgency of applying advanced technology to wildfire surveillance but also the importance of changing our reliance on current methods.
Only 1o.4% of wildfire detection occurred during night-time hours between the years of 2003 and 2020.
Night-time suppression is widely accepted as the most advantageous time to suppress flames as this is when wildfires tend to “lie down and be less intense”. (Balch et al., 2020.) While this is widely known and accepted, only 1o.4% of wildfire detection occurred during night-time hours between the years of 2003 and 2020.
Using the vapor pressure deficit (VDP), or rather, the absolute measure between the air’s water vapor content and its saturation value, researchers could understand the earth’s own ability to aid in containing the spread of wildfires, as higher levels of vapor content aid in combatting wildfire. Using VDP it was ascertained that “47% of burnable lands had a significant positive trend in the number of night-time hours above the vapor pressure deficit threshold, an increase of 80% in total" (Balch et al., 2020.,. p. 4)
In addition to this positive trend, the study noted that "annual mean VDPmin increased by an average of 25% across the global land surface over the 42- year period." This was an increase of 82% in 59% of burnable areas. Fires grow faster between midday to afternoon, when weather conditions proxy maximum fire spread rates and burn intensity.
The number of nights above the vapor pressure deficit has also increased rapidly, most notably "in the western United States (where) the number of flammable nights has increased by 11 - representing a 45% increase over the four decades" Such an increase may seem small in numbers, but on the ground, this has allowed for wildfire season to grow from a summer phenomenon to one that affects us even in winter months. (This winter’s wildfire in Colorado for example.)
"Such an increase in the length of the temporal window that lacks a night-time fire barrier represents an important and overlooked driver that can enable longer duration and consequently larger fire events" (Balch et al., 2020., p. 4.)
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Increased fuel and thus momentum during the day, and the rapid increase in nighttime VDP, underscores why it is vital we take advantage of nighttime firefighting. To do so we must move beyond limiting fire surveillance methods such as helicopters and planes and utilize the technology available to us, ensuring accuracy and effectiveness during these precious nighttime hours.
If you’re interested in reading more about this specific study, you can find a synopsis by the Washington Post here
RAPID RESPONSE ASSESSMENT
On the heels of the night-time fire study, comes the United Nations Environment Programme's assessment outlining the disastrous effect wildfires have had on our environment: “Spreading like wildfire: The rising threat of extraordinary landscape fires”.
The report, written by 50 experts from private industries, governments, and research facilities, outlines the vast impact wildfires have on not only the ecosystem but our society as a whole. In addition to this the study, using predictive modeling, outlines how wildfires will continue to grow without proper investment in both preventing extraordinary wildfires, as well as containing fires at an earlier stage.
Specifically, the report finds that wildfires will continue to grow not only in size but in frequency.
Wildfires are not only affected by the warming of our climate but also exacerbate the situation. In areas such as peatland and rainforests, which “store large amounts of incorrigible terrestrial carbon” wildfires release vast quantities of CO2, accelerating climate change. This then contributes to the “positive feedback loop in the carbon cycle, making it more difficult to halt rising temperatures”. (United Nations Environment Programme, GRID Arendal a UNDP Program, 2022, p. 10) This cycle becomes a cycle where the wildfires become more intense due to climate change, meanwhile also contributing vast amounts of emissions worsening climate change.
The report states that “over the last decade, it appears that more wildfires are occurring, not only in regions where seasonal fires are common but also in areas where fires do not normally occur. For example, eastern Australia and the west coast of the United States of America generally experience frequent summer fires, but in the 2019-2020 fire season saw record-breaking numbers and extent of wildfires in the regions. The Arctic and the Amazon, however – areas not generally prone to extensive wildfires – experienced record-breaking blazes in recent years.” (United Nations Environment Programme, GRID Arendal a UNDP Program, 2022, p. 26)
Changes to the global temperature and thus the climate has also altered how fire behaves. Fire variables such as weather conditions, fire regimes, land management practices, and ecophysiology of biomass fuel species change to adapt to warmer climates. (United Nations Environment Programme, GRID Arendal a UNDP Program, 2022, p. 34) This disastrous circular relationship between increased wildfires and intensity, and climate change puts our earth and thus our future at great risk.
The report outlines that current technology has limitations in that they are highly dependent on prevailing weather, fuel conditions, and accessibility. On this, we agree, as current methods of fire surveillance are dependent on helicopters and planes as well as human interpretation. These methods are not only unable to operate at night, come at a high cost, and are prone to inaccuracies.
In the past Robotto Fire has been accessed to be greenwashing. This is an accusation that we take very seriously, as using technology to help solve the climate crisis is at the very core of who we are at Robotto. How wildfires contribute to the continuous warming of our planet is an existential crisis to which we must find a solution. We believe full-heartedly that drones, specifically AI-powered drone software, will be a part of the solution.
One might ask, how does the technology contribute? As the technology empowers fire departments to survey wildfires faster, including at night and in hard-to-reach areas. Having this information during the nighttime hours makes containment efforts more effective- taking firefighters out of the defensive, allowing them to get the job done faster.
The increased effectiveness of firefighters directly impacts the technology’s environmental impact. Through case studies, interviews, and predictive modeling the following impact has been identified:
When Robotto Fire is applied during the early stages of a wildfire, the increase in data (location, size, direction, etc.) enables firefighters to contain the spread faster. When compared to historical fire data, models show an average decrease in burn sizes by approximately 60%.
Containing the fire faster also means fewer man-hours. In our calculations, we predict 50-70% fewer man-hours than currently used.
Finally, limiting the fire results in smaller burn sizes. This of course has an impact on a fire’s CO2 emissions. Models here show a reduction of 60%.
Balch, J.K., Abatzoglou, J.T., Joseph, M.B. et al. Warming weakens the night-time barrier to global fire. Nature 602, 442–448 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04325-1
Spreading like Wildfire. A Rapid Response Assessment. (United Nations Environment Programme, GRID Arendal a UNDP Program, 2022)