Nav: Home

Climate and society will determine the future of wildfire in the South

June 14, 2016

A new study by U.S. Forest Service scientists and collaborators projects a four percent increase overall in acres burned by wildfire in the Southeast by 2060, but with substantial uncertainties and large variations by state and ecoregion, including a 34 percent increase in acres burned due to lightning-caused fires. The study, just published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, is one of the first to account for land use and other societal changes in making projections of future acres burned by wildfires.

"Wildfire activity in the South is determined by two major factors - climate and society, both of which are changing," said Jeff Prestemon, Forest Service researcher who led the study in collaboration with other scientists from the Forest Service and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "In making wildfire projections, it's important to account for the role of humans, since they ignite the majority of wildfires and suppress nearly all of them. Land use change - more development and infrastructure - also limits the spread of wildfires by breaking up the fuels that fires need and allowing for faster firefighting responses."

The researchers set out to quantify how wildfire area burned could be altered in the 13 southeastern U.S. states from 2011 to 2060, incorporating climate change models as well as projections of land use, population, and personal income. Their study developed nine alternative views of climate and society that, taken together, provide a more complete picture of the possible futures of wildfire in the region than those previously available.

"The study extends earlier efforts in several ways," said Prestemon. "This is the first study we're aware of that projects future area burned in the southeastern U.S. Our estimates quantify the effects of changing climate and also changes in forests and society. In addition, we address issues of incomplete historical wildfire data that are common in wildfire activity databases in a way that has not been previously applied in wildfire projections."

Scenarios used for the study generally projected rising population numbers and densities, rising incomes, and falling forest area for the region - all of which would tend to lead to less wildfire in the region. At the same time, warming temperatures and erratic precipitation patterns forecast under climate change scenarios tend to favor more wildfire, especially that caused by lightning.

Specifically, the results project that in the Southeast, by 2056-2060, as compared to 2016-2020:
  • Median annual area burned by lightning-ignited wildfire increases by 34 percent;
  • Human-ignited wildfire decreases by 6 percent; and
  • Total wildfire increases by 4 percent.

"Our projections indicate that overall the Southeast would not experience a large increase in annual area burned," said Prestemon. "But considerable uncertainty remains in how wildfire, climate, and society will actually evolve and interact over the coming decades, and our results show ample scope for either increases or decreases. Wildland fire managers and policymakers would do well to plan for either eventuality when considering future costs and concerns such as air quality. Our simulations provide context for the range of possibilities they should consider."
-end-
Access the full text of the article at http://www.srs.fs.fed.us/pubs/51077.

For more information, email Jeff Prestemon at jprestemon@fs.fed.us

Headquartered in Asheville, NC, the Southern Research Station comprises more than 120 scientists and several hundred support staff who conduct natural resource research in 20 locations across 13 southern states (Virginia to Texas). The Station's mission is "...to create the science and technology needed to sustain and enhance southern forest ecosystems and the benefits they provide." Learn more about the Southern Research Station at: http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/.

USDA Forest Service ‑ Southern Research Station

Related Wildfires Articles:

Wildfires pollute much more than previously thought
Wildfires are major polluters. Their plumes are three times as dense with aerosol-forming fine particles as previously believed.
Smoke from wildfires can have lasting climate impact
Researchers have found that carbon particles released into the air from burning trees and other organic matter are much more likely than previously thought to travel to the upper levels of the atmosphere, where they can interfere with rays from the sun -- sometimes cooling the air and at other times warming it.
Humans sparked 84 percent of US wildfires, increased fire season over 2 decades
Humans have dramatically increased the spatial and seasonal extent of wildfires across the US in recent decades and ignited more than 840,000 blazes in the spring, fall and winter seasons over a 21-year period, according to new research.
Humans responsible for more wildfires than lightning, longer season and larger fire niche
A recent first-of-its-kind analysis of wildfire records over 20 years shows that human-started fires accounted for 84 percent of all wildfires, tripled the length of the fire season and dominated an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning-caused fires.
High-severity wildfires complicate natural regeneration for California conifers
A study spanning 10 national forests and 14 burned areas in California found that conifer seedlings were found in less than 60 percent of the study areas five to seven years after fire.
Mapping the health threat of wildfires under climate change in US West
A surge in major wildfire events in the US West as a consequence of climate change will expose tens of millions of Americans to high levels of air pollution in the coming decades, according to a new Yale-led study conducted with collaborators from Harvard.
Wildfires: More people, less fires
Every year, about 350 million hectares of land are devastated by fires worldwide, this corresponds to about the size of India.
UM study: Wildfires to increase in Alaska with future climate change
Climate change is melting glaciers, reducing sea-ice cover and increasing wildlife activity -- with some of the most dramatic impacts occurring in the northern high latitudes.
Not just climate change: Study finds human activity is a major factor driving wildfires
A new study examining wildfires in California found that human activity explains as much about their frequency and location as climate influences.
Studying the impact of wildfires on air quality, environment
Research assistant professor Ezra Wood at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been awarded a four-year, $800,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to participate in one of the largest studies to date of atmospheric chemistry in wildfires.

Related Wildfires Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Setbacks
Failure can feel lonely and final. But can we learn from failure, even reframe it, to feel more like a temporary setback? This hour, TED speakers on changing a crushing defeat into a stepping stone. Guests include entrepreneur Leticia Gasca, psychology professor Alison Ledgerwood, astronomer Phil Plait, former professional athlete Charly Haversat, and UPS training manager Jon Bowers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#524 The Human Network
What does a network of humans look like and how does it work? How does information spread? How do decisions and opinions spread? What gets distorted as it moves through the network and why? This week we dig into the ins and outs of human networks with Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and author of the book "The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviours".