“Tragic Fire in Maui Claims 111 Lives, Hundreds Still Missing”

By | August 18, 2023

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The fires that devastated the island of Maui in Hawaii resulted in the highest death toll from fires in the US in nearly a century. The fires were intensified by factors such as warming trends, the El Niño phenomenon, invasive plant species, and landscape changes due to agriculture. The causes of the fires are still being investigated. Climate change and drying trends have also led to a decline in precipitation and river flows in Hawaii. The drying trend has tripled or quadrupled the area burned in recent decades and has also caused water supply issues for resorts. Stéphane Foucart reported

The aftermath of the fire that devastated the town of Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. August 17, 2023.

Tropical paradises are also experiencing devastating wildfires. The fires that swept through the beautiful island of Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago from August 8 to 9 have resulted in the highest number of fire-related deaths in the United States in nearly a century. According to the latest official figures on Thursday, August 17, there have been 111 fatalities and hundreds of people are still missing. The dramatic and awe-inspiring images that circulated on social media, depicting residents and tourists fleeing to the sea to escape the flames, have deeply impacted the public.

Despite the presence of lush rainforests and abundant rainfall in this Pacific archipelago, several factors have contributed to the increased destructiveness of these fires. The combination of a significant warming trend, the occurrence of the El Niño phenomenon, the presence of invasive plant species, and landscape alterations due to agricultural activities have heightened the risk of wildfires. The exact causes of the fires are currently under investigation.

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Hawaii fires: How the blaze trapped residents of a seaside town

Climatologist Michael Mann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, explains, “Hawaii is located on the fringes of the tropics and is susceptible to the drying effects of the subtropical high-pressure dry belt. Climate change has expanded this belt and, coupled with rising temperatures, it leads to the drying of soils, resulting in increased drought conditions such as the one experienced in Maui this summer.” Geographer Matthew Plackett, an associate professor at Coventry University (UK), highlights that precipitation data for Lahaina, the western Maui town devastated by fire, indicate a decline in rainfall.

‘Flash drought’

Another indicator of this drying trend is the decrease in river flows. A study published in the journal Hydrological Processes in 2019, conducted by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, examined the variations in the flow of 23 rivers across the five main islands of the archipelago since the late 1960s. The study reveals a general reduction in water flow. Since the late 1980s, low-water flows have experienced an average decline of over 10% per decade. Furthermore, during the dry season from May to October, more rivers cease to flow, suggesting that an increasing number of streams may become intermittent.

While the devastating impact on Lahaina remains fresh in people’s minds, the drying trend has been quietly exerting pressure on the archipelago for several years. Clay Trauernicht, a fire management specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, notes that for most of the 20th century, Hawaii averaged around 5,000 acres burned annually. However, in the past two to three decades, this area has tripled or quadrupled in size. The drying of the islands, exacerbated by the growth of tourism, has also led to intermittent conflicts over the supply of drinking water, which is heavily utilized by the large coastal resorts. Local news reports have previously covered water supply cuts in small communities in West Maui as early as January.

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