The extent, frequency, and intensity of forest fires are expected to worsen within the coming decades due to climate change, scientists claim. In addition to the threat to homes and lives in the areas most often burned by wildfires, a rise in the number of fires could also adversely affect surrounding air quality due to the greater presence of smoke and other toxic particles.
As temperatures increase and water availability decreases, woody materials and underbrush in forests dry out. This increases the risk of wildfires started by lightening or human activity. Once a wildfire starts, weaker trees and hotter air can cause the fire to burn with more intensity and spread faster.
In 2009, atmospheric scientists at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) predicted the geographic area typically burned by wildfires in the western United States could increase by about 50% by the 2050s due mainly to rising temperatures. Using a series of climate models, Harvard’s SEAS also predicted that the greatest increases in area burned (75-175%) would occur in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains.
In fact, a study published in 2011 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) reported that “large fires have increased in the northern Rockies in recent decades in association with warmer temperatures, earlier snowmelt, and longer fire seasons.”
On its findings, study team member Anthony Westerling of the University of California, Merced stated, “We expected fire to increase with increased temperatures, but we did not expect it to increase so much or so quickly. We were also surprised by how consistent the changes were across different climate projections.”
Forest fires also further accelerate climate change due the large, rapid releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will lead to even more fires. A dangerous cycle.
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