Heating Up

One of the many extreme weather effects of global warming, wildfires now occur more frequently, burn longer, and burn hotter than ever before.

  • The changing global climate isn’t the only thing affecting wildfires; bark beetles, which infest and kill forests, have taken to the warmer weather and increased the risk of fires.
    Photo by Fotolia/gilitukha
  • “Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Joseph Romm
    Photo courtesy of the Oxford University Press

Carbon dioxide in the air is a great cause of climate change, making springs warmer, droughts longer, and winter snow melt more rapidly. What you may not realize is that these factors create longer burning seasons for wildfires, which, as they burn longer and hotter, emit more CO2 so that the cycle repeats. And it’s not only wildfires that have increased in frequency. The last decade has seen superstorms, forest fires, heat waves, and droughts, to the point where the affects of climate change have been impossible to ignore. Joseph Romm has written an up-to-date, comprehensive examination of the science behind climate change, what these environmental issues mean for the future, and possible clean energy solutions. Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2015) is a presentation of how the changing environment will impact nations, families, and you.

How Does Climate Change Affect Wildfires?

Global warming makes wildfires more likely and more destructive—as many scientific studies have concluded. Why? Global warming leads to more intense droughts, hot­ter weather, and earlier snowmelt (hence less water available for late summer and early autumn). That means wildfires are a dangerous amplifying feedback, whereby global warming causes more wildfires, which release carbon dioxide, thereby accelerating global warming.

Back in 2006, the journal Science published “Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity,” which analyzed whether the recent soaring wildfire trend was due to a change in forest management practices or to climate change. The study, led by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, concluded it was climate change

"Robust statistical associations between wildfire and hydroclimate in western forests indicate that increased wildfire activity over recent decades reflects sub- regional responses to changes in climate. Historical wildfire observations exhibit an abrupt transition in the mid-1980s from a regime of infrequent large wild­fires of short (average of 1 week) duration to one with much more frequent and longer burning (5 weeks) fires. This transition was marked by a shift toward unusually warm springs, longer summer dry seasons, drier veg­etation (which provoked more and longer burning large wildfires), and longer fire seasons. Reduced winter pre­cipitation and an early spring snowmelt played a role in this shift."

That 2006 study noted global warming (from human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide) will further accelerate all of these trends during this century. The 2007 review and assessment of the scientific literature by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged the danger:

"A warming climate encourages wildfires through a longer summer period that dries fuels, promoting eas­ier ignition and faster spread. Westerling et al. (2006) found that, in the last three decades, the wildfire season in the western U.S. has increased by 78 days, and burn durations of fires greater than 1000 ha have increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days, in response to a spring-summer warming of 0.87 degrees C. Earlier spring snowmelt has led to longer grow­ing seasons and drought, especially at higher elevations, where the increase in wildfire activity has been greatest. In the south-western U.S., fire activity is correlated with ENSO positive phases [El Niños], and higher Palmer Drought Severity Indices."

8/5/2019 8:17:29 AM

Increased CO2 causes increased growth of grasses, shrubs, and underbrush. Thee all add to the fuel mass available to fires, make them burn faster, and hotter. Non scientific, political decisions on how to manage forests are a big cause of massive uncontrollable fires.

8/5/2019 7:55:17 AM

We will save ourselves through education. Geological time, sustainable forestry, and the realization that man is part of nature. Global warming has occurred since the last ice age. Fires have occurred since the ice melted. It's part of the natural cycle. If we do not want huge, devastating wildfires, then we have to cut wood. The forest service and private landowners have created an environment of disease and bug killed Wood that is explosive if a wildfire comes through. Wood is harvested sustainably now a days thru select cuts, or Clear cuts. Trees either replant from seeds, roots, or we do it for them. It's easy. Plus we supply our nation with products ranging from paper and lumber, to toothpaste. Also, building in fire prone areas without defensible space not only endangers your home's and lives, but that of others.

7/9/2016 4:07:10 PM

Climate will do what climate will do as it has for hundreds of millions of years. Menwhile, decisions and policy need to be based on hard fact. There are some crucial, verifiable facts - with citations - about human-generated carbon dioxide and its effect on global warming people need to know and understand at hseneker.blogspot.com The discussion is too long to post here but is a quick and easy read. I recommend folowing the links in the citations; some of them are very educational.

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