Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Smokey Bear effect

This is another example of good intentions paving the road to hell.

In the United States in particular, for decades and decades the United States Forest Service, as well as other such institutions, had organized an ever-more massive campaign to combat forest fires. Forest fires were a completely irredeemable natural disaster with no positive qualities of any kind, and all possible measures must be taken to prevent and combat them, at all costs.

These campaigns worked in large part. And they had disastrous side effects.

Highly ironically, all these preventive and extinguishing measures, rather than saving forests and their natural habitats and ecosystems, ended up pretty much destroying them.

You might wonder how. Did these people inadvertently pollute the environment, poison it, or do something else that ended up destroying the ecosystems? No. It's nothing like that. The reason was, again highly ironically, the lack of forest fires.

According to tree ring research, forest fires in these American forests were a relatively regular occurrence, happening about once or twice a decade. Most of them were, relatively speaking, somewhat "mild" fires that just swept through an area. It would destroy most of the undervegetation and smaller trees, but bigger trees would survive.

These fires have had a thinning out effect. In other words, thanks to the regular fires, the forest became less dense. Which in turn meant that the ground would receive plenty of sunlight, as treegrowth was thinned out at a semi-regular basis. Which in turn was healthy for the ecosystem. After each fire, the ecosystem on the ground would thrive, thanks to all the fresh biomaterial and sunlight. Bigger trees were only mildly affected by the fires.

Another, as it turns out, beneficial consequence of semi-regular forest fires was that it would burn out most of the flammable material that had formed and piled up during the years, which in turn diminished the severity of future fires.

The unintended consequences of deterring and combating forest fires is the almost total destruction of the ecosystem of the forest floor. As forests have become denser and denser, without limit, the forest floors have become darker and darker, with less and less sunlight. Which has killed tons of species of plants and animals. Ironically, the forest floors have become, essentially, barren wastelands covered by dense treetops.

The majority of the organic material on the forest floors are dead leaves and branches from the trees. Which are highly flammable. And there's nothing removing this highly flammable material. You might guess where this is going.

In yet another twist of irony, preventing and combating forest fires has caused, for the above reason, the appearance of megafires. When preventing a forest fire is unsuccessful, it can turn into an absolutely huge inferno, orders of magnitude worse than the normal forest fires of the past. These spread over enormously large areas, and destroy everything in their path, including those trees that would have survived the normal forest fires. They also pose serious dangers to the ever-increasing human populations surrounding these forests.

While in the past a forest would recover quite quickly after a normal forest fire, perhaps only taking a year to do so, these megafires can have devastating effects and destroy the forest for years and decades to come, and truly make them into barren wastelands.

Good intentions do indeed sometimes pave the road to hell. Almost literally in this case.

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