Wildfire Blazes to Double in Size and Duration by 2050

9/4/2013 10:12:30 AM

As firefighters battle dozens of fires in at least 11 states, researchers say that future wildfire seasons will be about three weeks longer, be up to twice as smoky and will burn larger areas in Western states by 2050.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences combined climate scenarios, decades of meteorological data and records of past wildfire seasons to project the nature of fires.

"I think what people need to realize is that embedded in those curves showing the tiny temperature increases year after year are the more extreme events that can be quite serious," Loretta Mickley, an author of the new study that will be published in the October issue of Atmospheric Environment, said in a press release.

Temperature is the biggest driver for fires in the western United States. A significant temperature increase over time and a slight change in rainfall will increase the size of fires, the study finds.

A wildfire at Florida Panther NWR. Photo by Josh O'Connor. Photo posted on Flickr by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

Wildfires are commonly triggered by two sets of influences: human activity and lightning.

The challenge is predicting when it will occur. Wind levels can also dramatically affect how far and wide a fire spreads.

The researchers replaced historical observations with data based on the conclusions of the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In August, fires could increase by 65 percent in the Pacific Northwest and could nearly double in the eastern Rocky Mountains/Great Plains region.

Wildfires could also quadruple in the forests of the Rocky Mountains.

"In the future atmosphere we expect warmer temperatures, which are conducive to fires, but it's not apparent what the rainfall or relative humidity will do," Mickley said. "Warmer air can hold more water vapor, for instance, but what does this mean for fires?" (Catherine Griffin, Science World Report, Aug. 30).

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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