The consensus of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, in collaboration with an international team of scientists, is that climate change will cause a global disruption of wildfire patterns over the next 30 years. Their study used 16 different climate change models and generated what researchers described as one of the most comprehensive studies of the impact of climate change on global fire patterns
The current trend toward higher temperatures and less precipitation in the western states of the US and in most of Europe leads to increasingly abundant dry vegetation to fuel wildfires. Conversely, wildfire activity will decrease in equatorial areas, such as the rainforests, because of increased rainfall in those regions.
Max Moritz is the lead author of the study and a fire specialist in UC Cooperative Extension and is based at the school’s College of Natural Resources.
He urges conservation and urban development experts to include fire in long-term planning and risk analysis because “In the long run, we found what most fear—increasing fire activity across large parts of the planet. But the speed and extent to which some of these changes may happen is surprising. These abrupt changes in fire patterns not only affect people’s livelihoods, but they add stress to native plants and animals that are already struggling to adapt to habitat loss.”
UC Berkeley researchers worked with study co-author Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor, atmospheric scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. The collaboration combined more than a decade of satellite-based fire records with historical climate observations and model simulations of future change.
“Most of the previous wildfire projection studies focused on specific regions of the world, or relied upon only a handful of climate models,” said Hayhoe. “Our study is unique in that we build a forecast for fire based upon consistent projections across 16 different climate models combined with satellite data, which gives a global perspective on recent fire patterns and their relationship to climate.”
The study found the greatest disagreements among models covering the next few decades, with uncertainty across more than half the planet about whether fire activity is likely to increase or decrease.
But the models show a high agreement in climate models both near- and long-term for areas like the western US, resulting in the conclusion that the areas should prepare for more fire in the future.
“When many different models paint the same picture, that gives us confidence that the results of our study reflect a robust fire frequency projection for that region,” Hayhoe said. “What is clear is that the choices we are making as a society right now and in the next few decades will determine what Earth’s climate will look like over this century and beyond.”
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the US Forest Service, the National Science Foundation and The Nature Conservancy helped support this study.
U from UC Berkeley News Center, June 12, 2012 study published in Ecosphere, June 12, 2012