Assessing the role of compound drought and heatwave events on unprecedented 2020 wildfires in the Pantanal

Libonati R., Geirinhas J.L., Silva P.S., Russo A., Rodrigues J.A., Belém L.B., Nogueira J., Roque F.O., DaCamara C.C., Nunes A.M., Marengo J.A. and Trigo R.M
Environmental Research Letters, 17, p.015005. DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/ac462e

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The year 2020 had the most catastrophic fire season over the last two decades in the Pantanal, which led to outstanding environmental impacts. Indeed, much of the Pantanal has been affected by severe dry conditions since 2019, with evidence of the 2020's drought being the most extreme and widespread ever recorded in the last 70 years. Although it is unquestionable that this mega-drought contributed significantly to the increase of fire risk, so far, the 2020's fire season has been analyzed at the univariate level of a single climate event, not considering the co-occurrence of extreme and persistent temperatures with soil dryness conditions. Here, we show that similarly to other areas of the globe, the influence of land-atmosphere feedbacks contributed decisively to the simultaneous occurrence of dry and hot spells (HPs), exacerbating fire risk. The ideal synoptic conditions for strong atmospheric heating and large evaporation rates were present, in particular during the HPs, when the maximum temperature was, on average, 6 °C above the normal. The short span of the period during those compound drought-heatwave (CDHW) events accounted for 55% of the burned area of 2020. The vulnerability in the northern forested areas was higher than in the other areas, revealing a synergistic effect between fuel availability and weather-hydrological conditions. Accordingly, where fuel is not a limiting factor, fire activity tends to be more modelled by CDHW events. Our work advances beyond an isolated event-level basis towards a compound and cascading natural hazards approach, simultaneously estimating the contribution of drought and heatwaves to fuelling extreme fire outbreaks in the Pantanal such as those in 2020. Thus, these findings are relevant within a broader context, as the driving mechanisms apply across other ecosystems, implying higher flammability conditions and further efforts for monitoring and predicting such extreme events.