How Climate Changes Are Doubling US Forest Fires

How Climate Changes Are Doubling US Forest Fires

A firefighter tackles a blaze in California’s Klamath National Forest. Image: Kari Greer/US Forest Service via Flickr

New study finds that man-made global warming is the root cause of a relentless increase in forest fires in the US.

Climate change has already doubled the number of  forest fires in the western US since the 1980s − and it is a trend that will continue to increase, according to new research.

The study says the rise in temperatures and aridity sucks the moisture out of the plants, trees, dead vegetation on the ground and the soil, and is part of a worldwide trend of ever-increasing wildfires.

Scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory pin the blame firmly on human-induced climate change − a significant statement in a country where many Republican supporters still refuse to accept that the burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming.

There has been a lively debate about the issue, and the scientists make clear in research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that they wanted the settle the argument.

Bigger fire years

“No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear,” says the study’s co-author Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at the Earth Observatory. “Climate is really running the show in terms of what burns. We should be getting ready for bigger fire years than those familiar to previous generations.”

Forest fires in the US west began increasing in the 1980s − as measured by area burned, the number of large fires, and length of the fire season. The increases have continued, and, while there are a number of contributing factors, the study concludes that at least 55% of the increase is due to man-made climate change.

“A lot of people are throwing around the words climate change and fire − specifically, fire chiefs and the governor of California last year started calling this the ‘new normal’,” says the study’s lead author, John Abatzoglou, associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho. “We wanted to put some numbers on it.”

Since 1984, temperatures in the forests of the western US have increased 1.5°C (2.7°F), and resulting aridity has caused forest fires to spread across an additional 16,000 square miles than they otherwise would have − an area larger than the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

“The fires are going to keep getting bigger − climate is really running the show in terms of what burns”

Williams and Abatzoglou say their research does not take into account some factors that could be offshoots of climate warming, and thus they may be understating the effect.

These include millions of trees killed in recent years by beetles that prefer warmer weather, and declines in spring soil moisture brought on by earlier snowmelt. There is also evidence that lightning − the usual initial spark of forest fires − may increase with global warming.

The overall increase in forest fires since the 1980s is considerably more than the researchers attribute solely to climate change; the rest is due to other factors.

One factor has been a long-term natural climate oscillation over the Pacific Ocean that has steered storms away from the western US.

Another is firefighting itself. By constantly putting out fires, authorities have allowed areas they “saved” to build up more dry fuel, which later ignites and causes ever more catastrophic blazes.

Fighting forest fires

The costs of fighting forest fires have risen sharply in step, and the federal government alone spent more than $2.1 billion last year. “We’re seeing the consequence of very successful fire suppression, except now it’s not that successful anymore,” Abatzoglou says.

Wildfires of all kinds have been increasing worldwide, often with a suspected climate connection. Many see a huge fire that levelled part of the northern city of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, last May as the result of a warming trend that is drying out northern forests.

Fires have even been spreading beyond, into the tundra regions, in places where blazes have not been seen for thousands of years.

The effects go beyond loss of trees and other vegetation. A 2012 study estimates that smoke from forest fires worldwide causes long-term health effects that kill some 340,000 people each year, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia.

Carbon released to the air adds to the burden of greenhouse gases already there, thus producing even more warming. And soot settling on snow and ice causes them to absorb more heat and melt faster. – Climate News Network

About The Author

brown paulPaul Brown is the joint editor of Climate News Network. He is a former environment correspondent of the Guardian and also writes books and teaches journalism. He can be reached at [email protected]


Recommended Book:

Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change
by Paul Brown.

Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change by Paul Brown.Global Warning is an authoritative and visually stunning book

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…
Climate Warning: California Continues To Burn, Data Estimates Of Global Flooding
by MSNBC
Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central joins MTP Daily to discuss alarming new information about…
Stanford Climate Solutions
by Stanford
Climate change has brought us to a defining moment in human history.
Buying Renewable Energy From Your Neighbor
by NBC News
Brooklyn Microgrid, a project of parent company LO3 Energy, is looking to disrupt the more than 100-year-old energy…
Debate Over Pipelines Clouds Concern For Climate Change
by Global News
Climate experts are warning that Canada shouldn't ignore the wildfire crisis in California
How Climate Change Affects Wildfires
by NBC News
NYU environmental studies professor David Kanter explains how climate change is creating the perfect conditions for…
Rice Bowl Of Malaysia Threatened By Climate Change
by The Star Online
Kedah is known as the country’s “Rice Bowl,” and it is especially suitable for the growing of the grain.

LATEST ARTICLES

Building With Bamboo Can Cool The Climate
Building With Bamboo Can Cool The Climate
by Kieran Cooke
If you want to cut global temperatures try building with bamboo, say UK-based researchers studying its thermal…
To Win A Climate Election, Parties Need Ambition, Not Compromise With The Fossil Fuel Industry
To Win A Climate Election, Parties Need Ambition, Not Compromise With The Fossil Fuel Industry
by Marc Hudson
The UK will go to the polls on December 12 for the third time in four years. Climate change didn’t make waves in…
3 Ways Cities Can Prepare For Climate Emergencies
3 Ways Cities Can Prepare For Climate Emergencies
by Ryan Plummer, et al
Cities are on the front line of climate change. While their footprints cover a mere two per cent of the Earth’s…
How Green Roofs Can Protect City Streets From Flooding
How Green Roofs Can Protect City Streets From Flooding
by Catherine Howell, et al
Spring and summer 2017 have been among the wettest on record in eastern North America.
How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
Climate Change Will Magnify Weather Blocking Events
How Climate Change Will Magnify Weather Blocking Events
by InnerSelf Staff
“Blocking events” have produced some of the 21st century’s deadliest heat waves. These stalled high-pressure weather…
Arctic Sea Ice Loss Opens Marine Mammals To Deadly Virus
Arctic Sea Ice Loss Opens Marine Mammals To Deadly Virus
by InnerSelf Staff
Scientists have linked Arctic sea ice loss to a deadly virus that could threaten marine mammals in the North Pacific,…
Scientists’ Climate Gap Is Narrowing
Scientists’ Climate Gap Is Narrowing
by Alex Kirby
A poll shows scientists’ climate gap is shrinking − between their work on climate change and their own response to it.