Can we use new technologies to predict, detect and fight wildfires?

A man watches a wildfire in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

Climate change has brought greater and more frequent weather extremes in recent years. which has led to intense storms, flash floods, droughts, and ravaging wildfires. Wildfires in particular have become a global phenomenon, breaking out more frequently and with more ferocity in countries across the world – and it’s likely that the number and intensity of these wildfires will continue to increase due to climate change.

A recent study from Nesta Challenges, which designs challenge prizes that help solve pressing societal problems that currently lack solutions, found that environmental challenges are one of the most important societal issues that the UK faces today, with climate change seen as a national concern.

The study canvassed 2,200 Brits, including young teenagers right through to the elderly, to determine their views on society today. Interestingly, under 16s and those aged 65+ are the most likely to consider environmental challenges as the most important issue we currently face (67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively).

When forests and other natural environments which actively store carbon are burned, they release huge amounts of CO2 in a very short time. Wildfires have a significant and immediate impact on human health by lowering air quality and will have longer term impacts on mental health if natural calming spaces become rarer and more difficult to access. Wildfires leave devastation in their wake; destroying wildlife habitats and leaving behind long-lasting changes on the ground.

There are also huge costs associated with the combat and clean-up of wildfires. In the US, $3.5bn was spent on fighting wildfires in California alone in 2018, and over the last decade, fire suppression costs in Canada have ranged from about $500m to $1bn a year. Current fire management techniques are expensive and put human resources at risk: Nesta Challenges believes tech and innovation can play a vital role in bringing new solutions to decelerate climate change and mitigate its impacts, support the preservation of biodiversity and environments, while safeguarding human health. In fact, 60 per cent of people questioned for the Nesta Challenges study said that new and emerging technologies have the potential to be used for social good.


There are a number of new technological solutions emerging using artificial intelligence, data management, robotics and high-resolution mapping software that can help to prevent wildfires. An example of such technology is WIFIRE from the University of California San Diego, which was designed to predict a wildfire’s path in real time. Currently used by a handful of California fire departments, it is being tested in more than 100 other jurisdictions.

However, at present these existing solutions are mainly limited to tools that help firefighters combat wildfires on the ground. In order to leverage technological innovation we must be visionary, imagining new frontiers which though implausible today, help unlock creativity and progress. Cast your mind into the future and imagine a world where human beings no longer risk their lives to fight dangerous fires. Instead swarms of fire suppression drones fill the sky, sensing and adapting automatically to subtle shifts in the wind, able within mere seconds to detect the direction a fire is spreading or even use AI to predict where the fire will move, and contain it.

Another future might hold roving lighting rods, which roam through lightening hot spots serving to attract and neutralise lightning bolts, perhaps even storing the charge and translating it to a source of clean energy.

Imagine forest surveillance bots that have the technology to scan forest conditions (the undergrowth, debris, and overall dryness) to detect high-probability outbreak areas and then deploy teams of service bots to remediate the area, thus neutralising the threat of a fire.

The thought experiment could go on, and although most ideas won’t be feasible, the work of innovators is to spot those unique opportunities where something visionary can transform into reality. What we know is that the pace of innovation can be accelerated and fostered effectively. Challenge Prizes attract innovators and enhance their solutions by creating incentives, such as the opportunity to receive cash prizes, engage in accelerator programs, and gain unprecedented access to a network of key experts and organisations. Nesta Challenges is a leader in Challenge Prize methodology and works cross-sectorally, having developed and run Challenge Prizes across a myriad of areas from environment & energy, to financial and health sectors, to wellbeing and young people.

Climate change is a pressing issue of our time, and Nesta Challenges is looking at ways we can leverage Challenge Prizes to unearth game-changing solutions in the fight against climate change. We’re starting this process with an investigation into wildfires, to learn about the key issues, and importantly, the key gaps where technology and innovation are needed. If you are interested in contributing to or learning about this research, please contact us.

Liz Vossen is programme manager at Nesta Challenges at the innovation charity Nesta.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.