How climate change may affect wildfires

Changes in area burned w-1 degree C increase in global temp
Changes in area burned w-1 degree C increase in global temp
From National Academy of Sciences. Map of changes in area burned for a 1ºC increase in global average temperature, shown as the percentage change relative to the median annual area burned during 1950-2003. Results are aggregated to ecoprovinces (Bailey, 1995) of the West. Changes in temperature and precipitation were aggregated to the ecoprovince level. Climate-fire models were derived from NCDC climate division records and observed area burned data following methods described in Littell et al. (2009). Source: Figure from Rob Norheim.

Most of us have heard the predictions that climate change and higher temperatures will increase the number of acres burned in wildfires. But I experienced a Holy Crap moment when I saw the map above that illustrates where those changes will occur and by how much. According to a National Academy of Sciences paper titled Climate stabilization targets: emissions, concentrations, and impacts over decades to millennia, a 1°C increase in global average temperature will cause the annual area burned in the western United States to rise from 74 percent to 656 percent relative to the median annual area burned during 1950-2003.

Climate change is happening now, as we told you on January 8, 2013 (and in other articles tagged “climate change”):

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is reporting that last year was the hottest on record for the contiguous United States, shattering CRUSHING by a wide margin the previous record set in 1998. The average temperature of 55.3 degrees Fahrenheit was 1 degree above the previous record and 3.2 degrees higher than the average for the 20th century. That is a huge difference.

Average size of wildfires by decadeWhat is wrong with this picture: fires are getting larger, and budgets for fire suppression are decreasing. If the predictions are correct, the number of acres burned will continue to increase even more. The people that beg for our votes and then get sent to congress need to not just write strongly-worded letters about the shortage of fire suppression resources, they need to realize that they hold the purse strings and it is their job to actually take action by approving budgets and passing legislation, instead of what happened in December. Letters are meaningless, meant to be a smoke screen to obscure the reality that little is being accomplished.


Below is a brief version of the paper referenced above:

Climate Stabilization Targets, Report in Brief


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.