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Is global warming causing more, larger wildfires?

Author(s): Steven W. Running
Year Published: 2006

On 3 April 2006, the U.S. weekly news magazine Time ran a report on global warming with the cover title “Be worried, be very worried.” Similar coverage of global warming has emerged in other general-interest magazines in recent months, triggered by scientific studies that are finding evidence for adverse impacts of global warming occurring today, not merely projected for future decades. These adverse impacts—from higher probabilities of category 4 and 5 hurricanes (1, 2) to higher rates of sea-level rise (3)—are found not in some distant unpopulated region, but rather right in our own back yards.

On page 940 of this issue, Westerling et al. (4) come to a similarly discomforting conclusion for wildfires. They show that warmer temperatures appear to be increasing the duration and intensity of the wildfire season in the western United States. Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986. A similar increase in wildfire activity has been reported in Canada from 1920 to 1999 (5).

Westerling et al. used the most comprehensive data set of wildfire occurrences yet compiled for the western United States to analyze the geographic location, seasonal timing, and regional climatology of the 1166 recorded wildfires with an extent of more than 400 ha. They found that the length of the active wildfire season (when fires are actually burning) in the western United States has increased by 78 days, and that the average burn duration of large fires has increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days. Based on comparisons with climatic indices that use daily weather records to estimate land surface dryness, Westerling et al. attribute this increase in wildfire activity to an increase in spring and summer temperatures by ∼0.9°C and a 1- to 4-week earlier melting of mountain snowpacks. Snow-dominated forests at elevations of ∼2100 m show the greatest increase in wildfire activity.

Citation: Running SW. 2006. Is global warming causing more, larger wildfies? Science 313 (5789): pp. 927-928. DOI: 10.1126/science.1130370
Topic(s): Fire Behavior, Fire Prediction, Weather
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 19326
Record updated: Apr 15, 2019