Has climate change made wildfires more frequent and dangerous? Source: Stuart Palley

The Heated Discussion of Climate Change and Wildfires

Keywords: wildfire, biome, regeneration, climate change, adaptations, prescribed burns, ecology, and fire ecology

Next Generation Science Standards:

  • MS-ESS2-6. Develop and use a model to describe how unequal heating and rotation of the Earth cause patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation that determine regional climates.
  • MS-LS4-4. Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment.
  • MS-ESS3-3. Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

Recently, California and British Columbia have been experiencing some of the most destructive wildfires in history. An estimated 5.6 million acres of land has burned from wildfire in the western United States, with an $2 billion in estimated damages since September. The wildfires in October were estimated to be $3 billions alone. However, wildfires are not a unique problem to North America. Places such as Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina have also been devastated. Though wildfires are natural for forest regeneration in some biomes, evidence is mounting that human-caused climate change made them more frequent, longer lasting, and much more damaging.

Wildfires have caused unprecedented damage in western North America this year. Source: Cameron Stranberg

A natural process

Wildfires are important part of several biomes, including chaparral and savannas. These biomes require periodic fires every 20 to 50 years to burn down older trees and vegetation and allow for new seeds germinate and grow.

Species in these biomes have developed adaptations to survive and reproduce during these natural, periodic burns. Some tree species, such as ponderosa pine, have thicker bark to protect themselves from the flames. Other trees, such as knobcone pine, require fire to open their cones in order to disperse their seeds. Without natural fires these plant species would not be able to reproduce.

Knobcone pine tree cones before fire. Source: Steve Harper

Wildlife also have adaptations for areas with periodic fires. Some animals are able to escape quickly by running, such as elk, deer, and bears, while others such as rats, snakes, and turtles, can hide in their burrows to escape the flames.

However, if fires occur too frequently, say every 10-15 years, trees and plants don’t have the time to regenerate. This is why the National Park Services use what are referred to as prescribed fires to control on how long and how much vegetation is burned. These fires are intentionally ignited to safely allow ecosystems that require wildfires to regenerate, with park managers considering several factors before starting a prescribed burn such as topography, current and future weather patterns.  

Knobcone pine tree after fire. Pine cones have opened up. Photo Credit: Yosemite Explorer

The Effects of Climate Change

While there no study showing a direct, causal relationship between rising global temperatures and more frequent forest fires, there is a growing scientific consensus, that climate change could create more favorable conditions for wildfires to start, amplifying their effects and changing them from a natural, regenerative process, to being out of control and extremely destructive to both habitats and humans. Rising global temperatures have caused regional precipitation patterns to change, bringing drought to areas with already arid climates. Additionally, warmer winters have also reduced the snowpack in mountains, lowering the creek and river beds that give life to the forests in the valleys below.  

The diagram on the left with more red shows how climate change will alter water resources by creating more drought and water stress by the year 2050. The diagram on the right shows that if climate change did not exist then there would be less water stress in Western regions in 2050.

These factors have made for very dry forests and since the 1980’s, scientists have seen an increase in wildfire frequency. Just like how dry, well-seasoned logs burn faster than when wet, the lack of precipitation in drier biomes allow ignition of wildfires to happen more quickly and the fires to last longer.

If there are long term changes to temperatures and precipitation, ecosystems will become permanently altered, making life harder for the native species. Additionally, years with higher than average rainfall may not be enough to offset the effects of steadily rising temperatures. The overall trend in the western United States is becoming much drier, which combined with higher temperatures, shorter winters, and longer summers, make for more favorable wildfire conditions.Although the plants and trees are adapted to conserve water in these arid environments, they may not be equipped to survive longer periods without rain.

Additionally, more frequent wildfires will shorten regeneration time. Not only would this destroy habitats, but it would allow for invasive species to move in and biodiversity to be threatened. 

How Humans are Affected:

Wildfires have proven to be extremely expensive. From 2000 to 2009 there have been an estimated $665 million per year in property damages due to wildfires. Additionally, to combat the more frequent fires, local governments and federal organizations have had to increase wildfire management, further upping the cost to the taxpayer. Economic costs are not the only factor humans have to worry about. Residents of areas where wildfires occur must be able to evacuate if the fires get too out of control or close to communities. The recent wildfire in California killed 17 people.

Only you can prevent forest fires and the devastating effects of global climate change. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service

However, it is not too late for humans to reduce our impact on the climate by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to alternative energies and being conscious of how much energy you are using are both necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change. Also, be aware of local regulations with fire next time you go camping and conscious of weather to prevent wildfires. But perhaps most importantly, acknowledging climate change and its impact on the ecosystems and our everyday lives would help us preserve a better future.

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