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Past variance and future projections of the environmental conditions driving western U.S. summertime wildfire burn area

Author(s): Steven J. Brey, Elizabeth A. Barnes, Jeffrey R. Pierce, Abigail L. S. Swann, Emily V. Fischer
Year Published: 2021
Description:

Increases in Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD) have been hypothesized as the primary driver of future fire changes. The Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 (CMIP5) models agree that western U.S. surface temperatures and associated dryness of air as defined by the VPD will increase in the 21st century for representative concentration pathways (RCPs) 4.5 and 8.5. However, we find that averaged over seasonal and regional scales, other environmental variables demonstrated to be relevant to flammability, moisture abundances, and aridity-such as precipitation, evaporation, relative humidity, root zone soil moisture, and wind speed-can be used to explain observed variance in wildfire burn area as well or better than VPD. However, the magnitude and sign of the change of these variables in the 21st century are less certain than the predicted changes in VPD. Our work demonstrates that when objectively selecting environmental variables to maximize predictive skill of linear regressions (minimize square error on unseen data) VPD is not always selected and when it is not, the magnitude of future increases in burn area becomes less certain. Hence, this work shows that future burn area predictions are sensitive to what environmental predictors are chosen to drive burn area.

Citation: Brey, Steven J.; Barnes, Elizabeth A.; Pierce, Jeffrey R.; Swann, Abigail L. S.; Fischer, Emily V. 2021. Past variance and future projections of the environmental conditions driving western U.S. summertime wildfire burn area. Earth's Future 9(2):e2020EF001645. https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EF001645
Topic(s): Fire Behavior, Simulation Modeling, Fire & Climate
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 22719
FRAMES RCS number: 61624
Record updated: Mar 9, 2021