Nav: Home

Mapping the health threat of wildfires under climate change in US West

August 15, 2016

A surge in major wildfire events in the U.S. 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.

The researchers estimated air pollution from past and projected future wildfires in 561 western counties, and found that by mid-century more than 82 million people will experience "smoke waves," or consecutive days with high air pollution related to fires.

The regions likely to receive the highest exposure to wildfire smoke in the future include northern California, western Oregon, and the Great Plains.

Their results, published in the journal Climatic Change, point to the need for new or modified wildfire management and evacuation programs in the nation's high-risk regions, said Jia Coco Liu, a recent Ph.D. graduate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) and lead author of the study.

"Our study illustrates that smoke waves are likely to be longer, more intense, and more frequent under climate change," Liu said. "This raises critical health, ecological, and economic concerns. Identifying communities that will be most affected in the future will inform development of fire management strategies and disaster preparedness programs."

Other authors include Michelle Bell, the Mary E. Pinchot Professor of Environmental Health at F&ES; Keita Ebisu, a former doctoral student with Dr. Bell; as well as colleagues at Harvard, Colorado State University, and the University of Michigan.

Smoke from wildfires, which are becoming more frequent and intense in the U.S. West as the climate changes, contains large amounts of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which can have profound impacts on human health.

But while wildfires are estimated to contribute about 18 percent of the total PM2.5 emissions in the U.S., many questions remain on how these emissions will affect human populations, including how overall air quality will be affected, how these levels will change under climate change, and which regions are to most likely to be impacted.

Using sophisticated atmospheric and climate models, the researchers estimated the levels of PM2.5 directly attributable to wildfires during a recent six-year period, 2004 to 2009, as well as under projected future climate change conditions (2046-2051).

Twenty counties that are currently free from smoke waves are expected to experience at least one in the future six-year period. The length of the smoke wave season, the period between the first and last smoke wave day, is estimated to increase by an average of 15 days in more than 62.5 percent of the counties.

About 56 percent of the counties currently affected by smoke waves -- including most located in the forests of the northern Rocky Mountains and coastal counties -- will likely face more intense smoke waves in the future. (About 19 percent will have less intense smoke waves.)

The researchers also developed an interactive map to illustrate their findings.

"We hope these results will advance the understanding of the impacts of an increasing threat of wildfire smoke, and aid in the design of early warning systems, fire suppression policies and public health programs," said Liu.

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Related Climate Change Articles:

The black forest and climate change
Silver and Douglas firs could replace Norway spruce in the long run due to their greater resistance to droughts.
For some US counties, climate change will be particularly costly
A highly granular assessment of the impacts of climate change on the US economy suggests that each 1°Celsius increase in temperature will cost 1.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product, on average.
Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance
A new Cornell University study finds that labels matter when it comes to acceptance of climate science.
Was that climate change?
A new four-step 'framework' aims to test the contribution of climate change to record-setting extreme weather events.
It's more than just climate change
Accurately modeling climate change and interactive human factors -- including inequality, consumption, and population -- is essential for the effective science-based policies and measures needed to benefit and sustain current and future generations.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

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

Teaching For Better Humans
More than test scores or good grades — what do kids need to prepare them for the future? This hour, guest host Manoush Zomorodi and TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, in and out of the classroom. Guests include educators Olympia Della Flora and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#535 Superior
Apologies for the delay getting this week's episode out! A technical glitch slowed us down, but all is once again well. This week, we look at the often troubling intertwining of science and race: its long history, its ability to persist even during periods of disrepute, and the current forms it takes as it resurfaces, leveraging the internet and nationalism to buoy itself. We speak with Angela Saini, independent journalist and author of the new book "Superior: The Return of Race Science", about where race science went and how it's coming back.