Climate Change Worsens Wildfires: Blazes Increase by 2050

First Posted: Aug 30, 2013 07:04 AM EDT

Wildfires have become a major issue as they blaze across acres of land, consuming trees, dry grass, houses and anything else in their path. We may have to get used to more of these fires in the future, though. It turns out that climate change may be worsening wildfires and that by 2050, the wildfire season will be about three weeks longer, twice as smoky and will burn a wider area in western states.

As our climate continues to change, global conditions are shifting. Some areas are becoming drier while others are experiencing extreme storms and floods. That's why researchers decided to test how wildfires might change in the future as these shifts continue to occur.

"We weren't altogether certain what we would find when we started this project," said Loretta J. Mickley, one of the researchers, in a news release. "In the future atmosphere we expect warmer temperatures, which are conducive to fires, but it's not apparent what the rainfall or relative humidity will do. Warmer air can hold more water vapor, for instance, but what does this mean for fires?"

Wildfires are triggered by one set of influences--mainly human activity and lightning. Yet they're very difficult to predict since they can grow and spread according to a completely different range of influences that are heavily dependent on the weather. For example, wind levels from day to day can drastically impact how far a blaze spreads.

In order to actual predict these wildfires, the researchers looked to the past. They examined records of past weather conditions and wildfires in order to determine the main factors influencing the spread of the fire from region to region. They then created mathematical models that closely linked these variables with the observed wildfire outcomes for six "ecoregions" in the West.

After creating these models, the researchers then replaced historical observations with data based on the conclusions of the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the end, they found exactly how much area would be burned in each ecoregion in 2050. Some of the most startling findings were that the area burned in the month of August could increase by 65 percent in the Pacific Northwest and could nearly double in the Eastern Rocky Mountains/Great Plains region. It could also quadruple in the Rocky Mountains Forest reason. In addition, the probability of large fires could increase by factors of two or three.

"I think what people need to realize is that embedded in those curves showing the tiny temperature increases year after year are the more extreme events that can be quite serious," said Mickley in a news release. "It doesn't bode well."

The findings are published in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

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