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 itself cannot cause a wildfire, but can increase the likelihood that one will start, and that if it does, it will be more intense, widespread and long-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 three decades, the number of wildfires in the U.S. has not changed much, but the acreage burned from those fires has increased significantly. [7] This is despite better forest management and fire suppression policies that should decrease the acreage burned by wildfires. 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 human 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 nearly doubled over the last 30 years, and that trend 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 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. “Climate Change Indicators: Wildfires (Figs 1 and 2).” United States Environmental Protection Agency (updated Aug 2016).

This page was last updated on 07/16/2019 at 23:16 CDT.

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