BEIRUT — With Lebanon’s dry season on the way and global data indicating this past March as the planet’s second-warmest on record, Lebanese forests are at “increased fire risk,” experts told L’Orient Today.
"The month was jointly the second-warmest March globally," tied with 2017, 2019 and 2020, the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service said Thursday. The hottest March on record was in 2016.
According to Lebanese caretaker Environment Minister Nasser Yassin, it’s still too early to tell what this means for in Lebanon, but increased heat could foretell yet another long dry season ripe for fires.
“Our research is clearly showing a relationship between climate change and fires,” said Dr. George Mitri, director of the Land and Natural Resources Program at the University of Balamand. The program analyzes forest fires across Lebanon and runs an online platform tracking wildfire risks based on weather data.
Longer drought seasons put forests at risk and mean fires at ever-higher elevations, including mountain areas that saw relatively few wildfires per year in previous decades, Mitri added. Pest outbreaks are also drying out trees ahead of fire season.
Among the forests at risk are Lebanon’s iconic cedars, as well as junipers and firs.
Yassin said the biggest concern this year lies in the local responses to upcoming fires.
“We’re mostly worried about the level of preparedness,” he told L’Orient Today, adding that a national fire response plan is in the final stages of approval and slated for release in late April. The plan includes coordination with local authorities to monitor and put out wildfires, said Yassin.
“We have to be better prepared to adapt to these changing conditions and to devise fire management plans, especially in areas where we haven’t had fires before,” said Mitri.
“Now they are at increased fire risk.”
Lebanon’s wildfire season usually begins later in the year, but the country has already experienced wildfires in 2023, including a major blaze in the north last month that first responders struggled to control.
“This past month was definitely quite hot and there was very little rain, much less than last year,” said Khaled Taleb, head of a volunteer firefighting group in rural Akkar governorate.
Akkar’s remote locales, lack of firefighting equipment and unattended land often mean frequent and severe fires.
Taleb said he worries the fire season could kick off earlier than usual this year because of the dry weather. His team is still trying to garner the necessary equipment, such as specialized vehicles, to fight the blazes.
Global temperatures on the rise
The EU global temperature report is based on computer-generated analyses using billions of measurements from satellites, ships, aircraft and weather stations around the world.
The report said temperatures were above average over southern and central Europe and below average over most of northern Europe.
Global warming is causing sea ice to decline and sea levels to rise, raising warnings that dangerous tipping points could be reached.
Copernicus said Antarctic sea ice extent was the second lowest for March in the 45-year satellite data record, at 28 percent below average.
Copernicus data show the past eight years were the eight warmest on record as global temperatures rise because of human-caused climate change.