Extreme Wildfires Will Become Increasingly Common as Climate Change Worsens

Scientists from around the world collaborated to conduct a large-scale study of global wildfire events. The team found that the number of extreme wildfires is increasing as climate change worsens, especially in flammable regions such as the western United States and Australia’s east coast. The paper, which was just published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, covers the potential economic, social, and environmental costs of frequent wildfires.

Extreme wildfires can be deadly to wildlife and people, especially when they occur in suburban areas or near cities. An out of control fire is likely to cause severe damage that will take a lot of time and money to repair. Regular wildfires can also change the local ecosystem and most previous research has focused on this aspect. Although researchers agree that the number of extreme fire events is on the rise, it was unclear whether or not this was a natural pattern (and therefore impossible to control), linked to human activities, or due to climate change. Climate change is impacting the environment in many ways, leading scientists to investigate whether or not it may be at least partially responsible for the increase in extreme wildfires.

Researchers from the University of Tasmania worked with scientists from the University of Idaho and South Dakota State University to organize a database covering major wildfires that occurred between 2002 and 2013. The database included information from 23 million fires and 478 were classified as “extreme wildfires.” In many cases, these huge fires had led to serious property damage and loss of human life. This tended to happen when major towns or cities were built near flammable forest land. Anomalous weather, including severe drought, was correlated with nearly every extreme wildfire. The team found that while some of these events could be partially blamed on lack of preparedness, the overall increase of extreme wildfires was connected to climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise in areas that were already prone to fires, extreme fire events will become increasingly more common.

The results of the study show that climate change is increasing the risk of serious fire events, especially in regions that already experience wildfires. The team warns that these intense fires may be impossible to prevent and that preparedness is key. The western United States, for example, may begin experiencing deadly fires more regularly—the same is true for parts of Australia and the entire Mediterranean region. The authors emphasize the need to plan for these events as climate change worsens.

REFERENCE

Bowman et al. Human exposure and sensitivity to globally extreme wildfire events. Nature Ecology and Evolution (2017).

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