October 2019 sees the official opening of the new ‘Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society’, headed up by Professor Iain Colin Prentice of Imperial College London alongside experts from Kings College London, The University of Reading and Royal Holloway University of London. This centre is the only research organization in the world devoted to fundamental research on the biophysical dynamics of wildfire and its human dimensions.
Wildfires have been around since the dawn of life on land. They are vital to many ecosystems, recycling nutrients and increasing soil fertility. People have long been starting and controlling wildfires to manage croplands. But for as many benefits as they bring, there are serious downsides such as contributing to deforestation, emitting carbon dioxide, affecting air quality and endangering life. In recent years, wildfires have been increasing in frequency and intensity and occurring in regions not previously prone to them. With urban settlements lying closer to the edge of forests, the risk of wildfires to human life has never been greater.
However, the role of wildfires in our Earth system is very poorly understood, and moreover is politically contested. The role that climate change plays in their occurrence, and equally, how wildfires contribute to climate change are not at all well known. This issue need addressing urgently if we are to better predict, manage and mitigate the risks associated with wildfire in a rapidly changing world.
This 10-year transdisciplinary project will be a collaborative effort with four other Associate Directors from three other universities that bring in unparalleled, complementary expertise on remote sensing, palaeofires, and the societal dimensions of fire.
Professor Iain Colin Prentice FRS: Department of Life Sciences. As centre director, Colin will coordinate all the research to ensure a transdisciplinary approach to the project. Colin will also be leading on the Earth System modelling aspects of the project and leading the fourth strand of research on global perspectives. Dr Apostolos Voulgarakis: Dr Voulgarakis is an Associate Director of the Centre, as well as its founding Director. He is a climate scientist with expertise in using global Earth system models in order to understand the interconnections between wildfires, air pollution, and climate change. He will coordinate activities involving the modelling of natural systems within the Centre, and will provide linkages with wildfire scientists and stakeholders in the Mediterranean region.
Professor Martin Wooster: Professor of Earth Observation Science and expert of satellite earth observation and the quantification of landscape fire. Professor David Demeritt: Professor of Geography and a leading specialist in the interdisciplinary area of nature-society relations.
Professor Sandy Harrison: School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science. One of the most highly regarded female scientists working in the field of fire, Sandy will be working on Earth System process aspects of wildfire, and analysing data on fires in the recent geological past.
Professor Jay Mistry: Geography Department. She brings deep expert knowledge and field experience on the social-ecological and policy implications of fire.
This new research centre couldn’t have come at a better time. Last year (2018) saw the largest and deadliest wildfires across the state of California. It also saw the devastating wildfires that occurred during an intense heatwave in the Attica region of Greece where over 100 people died, making it the second deadliest wildfire in history. Canada is another region prone to large-scale wildfires, with smoke from fires in British Columbia covering huge areas of Canada and even as far as parts of Ireland during the 2018 fires. Even unlikely areas such as northern England, northern Sweden and Greenland experienced extensive burning due to unseasonably hot and dry weather. In 2019, we have witnessed huge swathes of the Artic landscape burn in unprecedented wildfires. This normally frozen region is a key component of the Earth’s natural cooling system and locks away carbon dioxide. However, these recent wildfires have instead released a vast amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and further exacerbated the climate imbalance.
The new Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society aims to better understand and predict fire, quantify their impacts and understand how we can live with fire. Whilst this research is interconnected and must be addressed holistically, there are four strands of research that will form the basis of the project:
This ambitious project will integrate knowledge and skills from a range of natural and social sciences. The Centre is organised with Imperial College London as the main hub and will utilise relevant expertise from many Departments including Physics, Mechanical Engineering, Life Sciences, the Centre of Environmental Policy and the Business School. ICL’s Data Science Institute (which hosts the largest Data Observatory in Europe) and the Grantham Institute will also be involved. The other universities involved all bring their own invaluable expertise. There will be two dedicated sites for the Centre close by in the centre of London: on ICL’s South Kensington Campus and at King’s College new Bush House development on the Strand, facilitating effective collaboration and research.
It will be funded by the Leverhulme trust for ten years, but it aims to leave a legacy well beyond that. It will not only lay the groundwork for a new, integrative science of wildfires, but also develop a new global theory of fire, create the capacity to model wildfire risks and dynamics, and help communities to live sustainably with fire.
We look forward to sharing the progress of this exciting collaboration on our website over the coming years.
Please also follow the centre’s main webpage: www.centreforwildfires.org for more details or the twitter account: @centrewildfires.