Wildfires and Climate Laser Talk

Question: How are wildfires connected to climate change?

Answer:  Wildfires, while not strictly ‘weather’ events themselves, are certainly affected by weather. Climate change alone cannot cause a wildfire but can increase the likelihood that one will start and, that if it does, it will be more intense, more widespread and longer-burning. [1]

Global warming magnifies the threat of wildfires in two ways. First, snow melts earlier in the spring but then starts to fall later in the autumn. This extends the dry season, allowing forests to dry out sooner and for a longer time. Second, global warming increases the frequency and duration of heat waves that intensify and expand dry conditions, turning green vegetation into easily ignited tinder. [2,3,4,5] A July 2019 paper states that “warming‐driven fuel drying is the clearest link between anthropogenic climate change and increased California wildfire activity to date.” [6]

Over the last four decades, the number of wildfires in the U.S. has not changed much, but the acreage burned from those fires has more than doubled, and the cost, just in the last 10 years, has ballooned by more than 1,000 percent. [7] This has occurred despite better forest management and fire suppression policies that should decrease the acreage burned. The fact that the opposite is true strongly suggests that the impact of climate change is outrunning efforts to mitigate the damage, rising costs, and danger to life that we are bearing from wildfires.

So, what’s the bottom line? There is strong evidence that destruction from wildfires across the U.S. has exploded over the last 40 years, a trend that is consistent with a longer fire season exacerbated by higher seasonal temperatures due to global warming. The impact of climate change on wildfires is costing us tens of billions.

  1. “Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks?” Union of Concerned Scientists (Accessed 1 Oct 2017).
  2. “Science Connections: Western Wildfires and Climate Change.” Union of Concerned Scientists (Accessed 1 Oct 2017).
  3. “Wildfires and Climate Change.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (Accessed 1 Oct 2017).
  4. Elliott, D. “This US Wildfire Season is Among the Worst: Here’s Why.” Phys.org (8 Sep 2017).
  5. Abatzoglou, J.T. and A.P. Williams. “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests.” Natl. Acad. Sci. 113:42, 11770-11775 (18 Oct 2016).
  6. Williams, A.P., et al. “Observed impacts of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire in California.” AGU100, American Geophysical Union (15 July 2019).
  7. “Facts + Statistics: Wildfires.” Insurance Information Institute (accessed 5 Jan 2020).

This page was last updated on 01/05/2020 at 21:02 CST.

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