Major Wildfires May Increase with Global Warming in Colorado

First Posted: Oct 06, 2015 09:19 AM EDT

Global warming may be linked to increasing wildfires. Scientists have taken a closer look at the wildfire history in Colorado's mountains and have found that large fires will continue to increase in a warming climate.

In this latest study, the researchers examined charcoal deposits in 12 lakes in and near the Mount Zirkel Wilderness of northern Colorado. They found that wildfires burned large portions of the area during the documented spike in temperatures in North America starting about 1,000 years ago. That period, known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), lasted about 300 years during which temperatures rose just under 1 degree Fahrenheit. This, in turn, caused an increase in wildfires.

Temperature increases over the past few decades have been comparable to those of the MWP, resulting in some of the largest wildfires in U.S. history. In fact, since the mid-1980s, starting with large wildfires in Yellowstone National Park, the frequency of large wildfires in the American West has increased. If the warmer trend continues as projected, the fires of recent years could just be the start of more extensive and devastating blazes.

"When we look back in time, we only see evidence of large areas burning one time in the last 2,000 years," said John Calder, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This suggests large wildfires of the magnitude we've recently seen used to be very infrequently."

In general, there's been a large increase in the number of sites burned by fires during the MWP. Not only that, but current wildfires are larger than those in the past. As the climate continues to warm, it's likely we'll see more large wildfires in the future.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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