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Spain Battles Largest Wildfire in 20 Years as Europe Sizzles in Deadly Heat Wave

Climate
Residents gather to watch a wildfire raging in Catalonia, Spain Thursday. PAU BARRENA / AFP / Getty Images

More than 500 firefighters and soldiers are battling Spain's largest wildfire in two decades as Europe continues to wither under an extreme heat wave, The Guardian reported Thursday.


The fire has burned 12,355 acres in the Catalan province of Tarragona, killed hundreds of sheep and forced 53 people to evacuate their homes.

"We're facing a serious fire on a scale not seen for 20 years," Catalan interior minister Miquel Buch said in a tweet reported by The Guardian. "It could burn through 20,000 hectares. Let's be very aware that any carelessness could lead to a catastrophe."

The fire ignited Wednesday, and authorities believe it started when chicken manure poorly stored on a farm spontaneously combusted in response to the high heat, USA Today reported. The paper explained the phenomenon:

Spontaneous combustion can occur when materials self-heat, reaching a high enough temperature for ignition to occur, according to the National Park Service. In the case of manure, microbes inside the dung can release heat until "it erupts into fire," according to Wired magazine.

A massive, 2,000-ton pile of manure in Nebraska burned for three months in 2005, per the magazine, and a Southern California manure fire in burned 6,000 acres in 2009.

Catalan Fire Department Chief David Borrell said the region's hilly geography made fighting the blaze more difficult.

"The problem is not so much the resources available but rather the difficulty of the terrain and the weather conditions," he said in an interview reported by USA Today.

Temperatures are expected to top 44 degrees Celsius in northern Spain and southern France, The Guardian reported.

In the southern French départements of Hérault, Gard, Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône officials have raised the heat alert to red, the first time since the system was put in place following a 2003 heat wave that killed 15,000.

"All members of the public should be concerned, even those who are in good health," the French interior ministry cautioned, according to The Guardian.

University meteorologist Ruben Hallali tweeted Thursday's heat map for France next to a picture of Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream to emphasize the temperature extremes, The Guardian further reported.

So far, the extreme heat has claimed at least three victims. Three elderly French people died after suffering heart attacks while swimming, Grist reported. A 72-year-old homeless Romanian man who was found dead near a train station in Milan Thursday may also have succumbed to the heat, BBC News reported.

Meanwhile, June temperature records were broken in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic on Wednesday, according to BBC News.

Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said the current heat wave was consistent with scientific predictions for the impact of the climate crisis.

"Weather data show that heatwaves and other weather extremes are on the rise in recent decades," he said, as The Guardian reported. "The hottest summers in Europe since the year AD1500 all occurred since the turn of the last century: 2018, 2010, 2003, 2016, 2002."

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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