Global climate change, while being denied by many, is currently being vastly studied by scientists. The increase of extreme fires is just one of many alarming changes to the global landscape. While fire is a natural and even beneficial part of the ecosystem, global warming seems to only be adding fuel to the wildfire. According to the National Wildlife Federation, there are several ways in which global warming increases the risk for wildfires. The following four factors have the highest impact on increased risk for extreme fires: a larger amount of fuel for forest fires, longer fire seasons, a greater frequency of lightning strikes, and overall drier weather conditions.
Hotter and Drier Weather Conditions
Overall, climates are becoming incrementally warmer and drier. By the middle of the 21st century, summers in North America are projected to be about 3.6 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual. Moisture will, therefore, evaporate much more quickly, creating drier regions. The southwestern states like New Mexico will likely be impacted the hardest. Arizona has already seen a 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit temperature increase in its decade-long average, which is .7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average for the rest of the United States.
In addition to hotter and drier climates, the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when there are wildfires makes global warming even worse. It can take decades for a burnt forest landscape to regrow and expel carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In recent U.S. history, wildfire-based carbon dioxide release is equal to about 11 percent of annual fossil fuel emissions. As extreme wildfires become more prevalent, forests might struggle to rebuild themselves and expel carbon dioxide from the air, thereby perpetuating global warming trends.
More Wildfire Fuel
Drier, warmer weather conditions result in a greater prevalence of beetle and other insect infestations. These infestations create more dead trees, which are more highly combustible. Beetles will be able to survive for longer periods of time in cooler climates since those climates are incrementally becoming warmer during cold seasons. Additionally, wildfires seem to be more pronounced in areas where humans have built communities into naturally flammable forest landscapes. The western United States and Australia’s eastern coast are two primary examples of such locations. While land development is often encouraged by local governments in areas where there are border wildlands, fighting these fires is not financially doable for local governments. They call in the federal government to send firefighters into land that would have once been allowed to burn and die out naturally in the absence of human inhabitants.
Proper lawn care techniques should be practiced throughout the year in order to reduce potential fuel sources (such as pine needles and dry grass) from businesses and homes located in dry climates. Individuals should also be aware of invading insects and how to deal with these fuel-creating invaders.
Longer Fire Seasons
With a significant increase in hotter, drier climates comes the potentiality for longer fire seasons. Runoffs will occur earlier in spring, and summers will become more quickly heated and last longer into the fall. Precipitation amounts are expected to continually decrease, making fire seasons exponentially longer and more dangerous. Since snowpack melts approximately 1 to 4 weeks earlier than it did in the middle of the 20th century, there is less moisture left over from perpetually shortening winter seasons. A simple spark or drop of a cigarette could easily ravage a highly combustible forest landscape in the middle of a long fire season.
Greater Frequency of Lightning Strikes and Higher Winds
A long fire season fueled by drought and high winds exacerbated damage done in the Gatlinburg, Tennessee fires of November 2016. Although allegedly started by juvenile arsonists, hazardous weather conditions brought on by a long season of dry heat and high winds propelled fire over an exponentially larger area than what would have likely otherwise been damaged.
Individuals and businesses can take proactive measures to secure homes and facilities against extreme fires. Proper tending of landscape throughout the year can help keep combustible material (such as pine needles) to a minimum. Check local regulations on burn bans, and be aware of how dry conditions are in your area.
By: Jennifer Livingston
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