Forest fires in parts of India and Nepal are burning stronger than they have in nearly two decades, according to the BBC.
Over the past month, 500 fires have been recorded in Nepal and more than 1,500 fires have been recorded in the forests of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. The environmental crisis has killed an estimated 20 people and its ongoing intensity threatens to displace people from their homes and destroy local agriculture.
The fires have been caused by a combination of factors including local burning practices and the onset of warmer weather, but they’ve reached new heights because of unseasonably dry conditions caused by climate change, according to the Financial Times.
"It has neither rained nor snowed for several months now," Bharati Pathak, president of the Federation of Community Forestry Users in Nepal, told the BBC. "That is why even oak forests are burning up — the ground they stand on is totally dry."
The lack of rainfall could prolong the fires, especially since May is peak fire season in the region. Scientists and government officials worry that the past month could merely be a preview of what’s to come, the BBC reports.
The forest fires are also a preview of a broader ecological transition, according to the Guardian, as forests turn into sources of carbon dioxide (CO2), shifting from their historic role as carbon sinks.
In fact, the Uttarakhand forest has released more CO2 in recent weeks than it has since 2003, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
While governments in both India and Nepal have been pouring more resources into the effort to contain and prevent fires, the BBC reports that fire-fighting forces in the two countries are currently unprepared and understaffed.
In the years ahead, temperatures will continue to rise and precipitation patterns will become even less reliable. In such a context, forest fires will become both more extreme and frequent.
This represents one of the tipping points that scientists say will dramatically worsen the climate crisis. Since the climate and environment are an interconnected system, more forest fires will also trigger other tipping points such as the rapid degradation of soil and the melting of polar permafrost, two trends that would release enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, according to Carbon Brief.
Overcoming this scenario will require countries to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in adaptation measures that will help communities withstand and recover from fires.