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November : Climate impacts double number of forest fires

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2 November, 2016

Climate impacts double number of forest fires

Forest fire

Climate change has already doubled the number of forest fires in the Western US since the 1980s and it is a trend that will continue to increase, according to new research. The study says the rise in temperatures and aridity sucks the moisture out of the plants, trees, dead vegetation on the ground and the soil, and is part of a worldwide trend of ever-increasing wildfires. 

Scientists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory pin the blame firmly on human-induced climate change - a significant statement in a country where many Republican supporters still refuse to accept that the burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming. 

There has been a lively debate about the issue, and the scientists make clear in research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that they wanted the settle the argument. "No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear," says the study's co-author Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at the Earth Observatory. "Climate is really running the show in terms of what burns. We should be getting ready for bigger fire years than those familiar to previous generations." 

Forest fires in the US west began increasing in the 1980s - as measured by area burned, the number of large fires, and length of the fire season. The increases have continued, and, while there are a number of contributing factors, the study concludes that at least 55 per cent of the increase is due to man-made climate change. 

"A lot of people are throwing around the words climate change and fire - specifically, fire chiefs and the governor of California last year started calling this the ‘new normal'," says the study's lead author, John Abatzoglou, associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho. "We wanted to put some numbers on it." 

Since 1984, temperatures in the forests of the western US have increased 1.5deg (2.7deg), and resulting aridity has caused forest fires to spread across an additional 16,000 square miles than they otherwise would have - an area larger than the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. 

The costs of fighting forest fires have risen sharply in step, and the federal government alone spent more than US$2.1 billion last year. "We're seeing the consequence of very successful fire suppression, except now it's not that successful anymore," Abatzoglou says.

Source: Friday Offcuts

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