A new study out this week suggests that the sheer volume of forest fires is expected to climb and could even double by the year 2050. The research shows that this is largely due to climate change as temperatures rise across the globe. But interesting to note, other variables that have direct correlation to the amount and intensity of wildfires weren't accounted for in this study. The biggest of these variables are human interaction and the density of our forests.
Let's get to the obvious… the population of the United States has risen dramatically over the last 100 years… this we all know. As we grow, we continue to spread out into areas surrounded by forests. The vast majority of major wildfires over the last several years have been because of humans… including this year's largest Rim fire in California. Thousands of small fires are produced across the country by lightning every year, something that is unavoidable. But as people continue to migrate into areas that were uninhabited 50, 20, or even 10 years ago, the chance of a wildfire erupting goes up exponentially.
The other cause of major wildfires is the sheer dense nature that our forests have grown into. Forest fires are a naturally occurring phenomena. Throughout the course of history, thousands of fires have come and gone every year. In the early 1900's as the population began to move westward, these "random" fires were considered to be bad for the environment and dangerous for everyone around them. So the government enacted ways to fight these small and numerous fires. But what was unknown at the time was these very fires were actually GOOD for the forests. These were typically sporadic and very small in nature, running along the ground and just burning grasses, weeds, twigs, and anything already dead. The majority of healthy plants, trees, and animals would survive as it kept the forests thinned and well groomed leaving just healthy growing plants and trees in their wake. Since these fires were no longer allowed to burn naturally, many forests have become very dense and overrun with both dead and living plants and trees. This is a perfect breeding ground for a very intense, hot, and dangerous fire. THIS is the main reason we are seeing forests burn at an alarming rate. Not to mention, with a very hot fire… it will kill everything it comes in contact with leaving the area dead, scarred, and lifeless for years. With the small fires of the past, many plants and trees would come away unharmed. Now the fires have grown because of human interaction. This is what the article is lacking in research blaming the growing fires on warmer temperatures. IF temperatures continue to warm, it certainly won't help the fire situation, but it's not the only piece of this very large puzzle. The article is listed below if you would like to read it yourself. It is written by Becky Oskin, LiveScience Staff Writer:
Yosemite National Park's Rim Fire dashed the plans of many campers over Labor Day weekend. The iconic views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley's sheer granite walls disappeared behind a sudden influx of thick smoke the night of Aug. 30, just before most visitors arrived for the holiday. The air quality was deemed to be unhealthy for outdoor activities, according to California air quality officials. Smoke from the still-burning fire continues to cause unhealthy air quality levels for sensitive people in nearby cities, such as Fresno, Calif.
The Yosemite Conservancy's Half Dome webcam shows before-and-after views of the valley as it was cloaked in smoke from the Rim Fire. Credit: Yosemite Conservancy
The Rim Fire is an omen for the West, according to a new study of future wildfire activity and smoke pollution. The researchers behind that study are predicting more smoke pollution — even in communities far from the forest's edge — as more fires burn due to rising temperatures.
The guilty party behind the new forest fire patterns is climate change, the researchers said. Higher average temperatures will result in more wildfires by 2050, especially in August, they found.
The area burned by wildfires is expected to double in some parts of the West by 2050. Credit: Xu Yue
"Fires are started by human activity or lightning, but it's weather that determines the spread of fires," said Loretta Mickley, a study co-author and atmospheric chemist at Harvard University.
Relative humidity and precipitation are also key players in wildfires, but the study found temperature was the primary driver for future wildfires, at least in the West's near future. From the Great Plains to California, the predicted temperature increase is between 4 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.2 and 2.8 degrees Celsius) between now and 2050.
Overall, the typical four-month fire season will gain three weeks by 2050, the researchers report. And the probability of large fires could double or even triple. The findings were published in the October issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment.
Mickley noted that some Western regions will respond much more strongly to the predicted climate change.
The Eastern Rocky Mountains and Great Plains regions will see their area burned during August nearly double. Also in August, the Rocky Mountain forest acreage torched by fire will quadruple, and the Pacific Northwest will increase by 65 percent, the study suggests. [World Set a Flame: 2002 - 2011 Visualized]
And even distant communities outside the fire zones will feel the impact, from soot and aerosols wafted on winds. The rise in pollution will vary by region, but could jump up to 70 percent in some areas for PM2.5, a measure of fine particles in the air, said Xu Yue, lead study author and a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. For example, a fire in California's mountain forests produces more smoke than a desert fire because it burns more fuel — in the form of trees, underbrush and littered debris — than a fire in the sparse desert. The Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest and Northern California will be hardest-hit areas, the study predicted.
"We are now working to determine how this increase in wildfires will affect the health of people in the western U.S.," Yue told LiveScience.
Wildfires in 2050 are expected to be up to twice as smoky, threatening visibility and public health. Credit: Xu Yue
To make their predictions, the researchers first created fire prediction models that were tested against real-world data from 1980 to 2004. These fire models were pushed into the future with the 15 climate models from CMIP3, the internationally produced global climate models. The future fire predictions varied wildly, from extreme fire scenarios to a decrease in wildfires. The study offers the median of all the climate model predictions, Yue said.