It seems to be the conventional wisdom that climate change, in this case warmer temperatures, will lead to (or has led to) more fires and more acres burned. And that may be the case in the short term, but a new study shows that over the last 15,000 years warmer temperatures resulted in changes to vegetation types with more resistance to wildfires–at least in Alaska.
The research was led by Philip Higuera of Montana State University who examined historical fire frequency in northern Alaska by analyzing sediments at the bottom of lakes. The cores they took showed changes in plant parts, pollen, and accumulations of charcoal deposits. From this they could determine vegetation type and fire frequency which they then compared to known historical climate changes.
They found that climate change involving warmer temperatures caused the vegetation to change from flammable shrubs to more fire-resistant deciduous trees.
Climate affects vegetation, vegetation affects fire, and both fire and vegetation respond to climate change. Most importantly, our work emphasizes the need to consider the multiple drivers of fire regimes when anticipating their response to climate change.
From Ecological Society of America (2009, April 21). Plants Could Override Climate Change Effects On Wildfires. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 21, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090421111701.htm
Researchers have identified a wildland fire behavior phenomenon that is a little scary–fingers of fire that shoot out from the main flaming front at 100 miles per hour, or 147 feet per second. These fingers can be tens of feet wide and can extend for hundreds of feet, but then they collapse, all within two seconds.
Shaded contours show the temperature detected by the infrared imager. The vectors show the calculated flow velocities. Every eighth point in the x direction and every fourth point in the z direction are plotted.Janice Coen, Shankar Mahalingam, and John Daily observed this behavior on infrared imagery of going fires and described it in their paper, Infrared Imagery of Crown-Fire Dynamics during FROSTFIRE, Journal of Applied Meteorology, 43, 1241-1259.
According to the report:
This powerful, dynamic mechanism of fire spread could explain firefighter reports of being overtaken by ‘‘fireballs.’’
The Sacramento Bee has an interesting article about how climate change is affecting wildland fires. Here is an excerpt.
Wildfire has marched across the West for centuries. But no longer are major conflagrations fueled simply by heavy brush and timber. Now climate change is stoking the flames higher and hotter, too.
That view, common among firefighters, is reflected in new studies that tie changing patterns of heat and moisture in the western United States to an unprecedented rash of costly and destructive wildfires.
Among other things, researchers have found the frequency of wildfire increased fourfold – and the terrain burned expanded sixfold – as summers grew longer and hotter over the past two decades.
The fire season now stretches out 78 days longer than it did during the 1970s and ’80s. And, on average, large fires burn for more than a month, compared with just a week a generation ago.
Scientists also have discovered that in many places, nothing signals a bad fire year like a short winter and an early snowmelt. Overall, 72 percent of the land scorched across the West from 1987 to 2003 burned in early snowmelt years.
Across the Sierra, satellite imagery shows that today’s wildfires are far more destructive than fires of the past, leaving larger portions of the burned landscape looking like nuclear blast zones. That searing intensity, in turn, is threatening water quality, wildlife habitat, rural and resort communities and firefighter lives.
As the climate warms, the ability of the region’s mixed conifer forest ecosystem to recover from these destructive fires is in danger.
“We’re getting into a place where we are almost having a perfect storm” for wildfire, said Jay Miller, a U.S. Forest Service researcher and lead author of a recent paper published in the scientific journal Ecosystems linking climate change to the more severe fires in the Sierra.
“We have increased fuels, but this changing climate is adding an additional stress on the whole situation,” Miller said. “When things get bad, things will get much worse.”
Longer, more intense fire seasons
That future may already have arrived. This year, the fire season got off to an early June start in the north state and only recently came to a close. Statewide, 1.4 million acres burned in 2008, just shy of last year’s 1.5 million acres, the highest total in at least four decades.
“When I started fighting fire, the normal fire season was from the beginning of June to the end of September,” said Pete Duncan, a fuels management officer for the Plumas National Forest. “Now we are bringing crews on in the middle of April and they are working into November and December.”
“And we’re seeing fires now burning in areas that normally we wouldn’t consider a high-intensity burn situation.”
Just a few weeks ago, Duncan heard about one such incident: the Panther fire on the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border.
“It made an eight-mile run one afternoon, in late October. It burned through an area of fairly high elevation old-growth timber and at very high severity,” Duncan said.
“I was kind of amazed,” he added, “that something would have burned to that scale. To make a 40,000-acre run in an afternoon is significant for any time of year – but particularly for that time of year.”
JACKSON, WYOMING – Now might be a good time to get into the firefighting business.
If science and history are a guide, the world and particularly the Rocky Mountain West are poised on the cusp of a dangerous increase in the size and frequency of large fires, caused by a warming climate.
“By the end of this century we’re expecting the area in Canada that burns to double,” said Mike Flannigan, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. “Others say it will be a change of three to five times. It looks pretty gloomy.”
An increasing risk of large fires may not be news to landowners and homeowners who have been scorched by recent blazes. But speakers at a conference here Wednesday put a finer point on the idea, backing it up with reams of charts and boat loads of scientific research outlined in PowerPoint presentations.
El Cariso Hot Shots catch their breath after being chased out of a fire on the San Bernardino National Forest, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Flannigan is one of many researchers who spoke Wednesday at a weeklong conference titled “The ’88 Fires, Yellowstone and Beyond,” co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the International Association of Wildland Fire. Many of Wednesday’s talks focused on climate change and its effects on wildfires.
Based on data already compiled, the West is on the front of a rising curve for more large fires. Research by Anthony Westerling, of the University of California-Merced, showed that fires more than 500 acres in size have increased by 300 percent since 1985 on National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs lands.
Westerling examined how rising temperatures have affected earlier spring runoffs and in many cases led to warmer, drier summers. His studies showed that between 1970 and 2008, there has been a 78-day increase in the fire season. The average burn time for fires has risen from one week to five weeks.
Projecting his data into the future, Westerling sees the average fire year between 2072 and 2099 looking similar in moisture deficit to Yellowstone National Park in 1988, when 794,000 acres burned.
“This is assuming we keep producing as much CO2,” he said. “I can’t get a sense of how you would manage yourself out of this change.”
Fire managers note that they’re already seeing unusual fire behavior.
Steve Frye, of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said, “We are experiencing extreme, aggressive fire behavior in places where we haven’t in the past,” including fires at elevations and in fuel types where fires didn’t used to burn.
Fighting such fires has become more complicated, he said, thanks in large part to the construction of houses near forests, which he called “the single largest challenge and change for fire managers in the last 20 years.”
Meanwhile, firefighting agencies have had to deal with a decline in the number of firefighters and equipment used to battle blazes. Agencies would need twice the resources they now have to keep fires at current levels, something that’s not going to happen. So fire managers have had to adapt.
“We are making better decisions in how we assign our resources,” Frye said. “But we’re also assigning units to protection that could be used elsewhere.”
Flannigan, the Canadian researcher, said the situation north of the border could well apply to the Western United States.
“It’s almost a given that we’ll see more fire activity, more ignitions,” he said. “This is a global problem, and it’s going to require global solutions.”
Making real time information about the fire’s location available, interpreting that data to decide what areas should evacuate and which areas are safe, then providing this data to the public in near-real-time is not a small task. But it could be argued that this should be the most important objective of fire managers, above and beyond the boiler-plate written into every Incident Action Plan of “provide for the safety of the public and firefighters”.
In that post we further explained how this could be done, using the Internet and various sources of information.
We don’t know if the Madison County Commissioners were aware of that post, but they recently….
….gave speedy and unanimous approval to develop a county sponsored “emergency information” web-site. The site (madison.homestead.com) was up and running the next day.
The new web-site will be maintained by the County Communications Department. The site is intended to allow county residents extremely fast (nearly instant) access to information related to significant county emergencies and urgent county related information.
The County Commissioners all agreed that since Madison County has no local television or radio stations, there is no reliable way to allow residents immediate access to developing or changing information. Particularly, information related to significant, long duration county emergencies – as evidenced during the Labor Day Hebgen Dam incident.
Even though early in the incident, designated Public Information Officers tried desperately to alert the media in Bozeman about the situation at Hebgen, the television coverage of the incident was weak at best.
During the Hebgen event, local residents were generally aware that there was an emergency of some sort, but had difficulty accessing timely and rapidly changing facts of the incident. Consequently, due to an information vacuum, the rumor mill took over – and many residents understandably reacted to inaccurate information.
From The Latest.
And they had the web site “up and running the next day”! Congratulations to the forward-thinking County Commissioners of Madison County, Montana!
The biggest overall influence on global wildfire activity in the last 2,000 years has been climate, according to a new study that also shows humans have played a significant role in fire levels in recent centuries.
Researchers looked at charcoal levels in hundreds of corings of ancient lake sediments and peat from around the world.
What they found is that until about 1750, there was a long-term decline in burning, reflecting a global cooling trend. Then, as global settlement expanded and the Industrial Revolution took hold, wildfires increased, peaking around 1870. Farmers used fire to clear the land. Increased fossil-fuel use contributed to rising levels of carbon dioxide that sped plant growth and created more to burn. More people meant more fires started by humans.
But starting in the late 19th century, settlement had the opposite effect, particularly in western North America, the tropics and Asia.
Livestock ate the native grasses that had helped fuel frequent, low-intensity fires in the West. Wildlands were replaced by farms. During the 20th century, fire suppression became the norm in many parts of the world.
The result was an abrupt drop in fires, despite a warming climate.
The paper, “Climate and Human Influences on Global Biomass Burning over the Past Two Millennia,” was published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience and was written by a nine-member team from the U.S., Europe and Great Britain.
It did not take into account recent decades, when wildfires in the U.S. have been on the rise.
Patrick Bartlein, a University of Oregon geography professor and one of the study authors, said climate is regaining the upper hand as the dominant force.
“All signs point to the idea that with continued global climate change … we’ll see more and bigger” fires.