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Wildfires and Global Climate Change

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, in collaboration with scientists at Texas Tech University released a paper TODAY in the April 8 issue of PLoS ONE (an open-access, peer-reviewed journal of the Public Library of Science) with the conclusion that climate change will bring about major changes in worldwide fire patterns, and that those changes are happening quickly.

The journal reference is Meg A. Krawchuk, Max A. Moritz, Marc-André Parisien, Jeff Van Dorn, Katharine Hayhoe. Global Pyrogeography: the Current and Future Distribution of Wildfire. PLoS ONE, 2009; 4 (4): e5102 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005102

(Note added April 19, 2009: I was trying to remember the exact chronology, but I believe that this article was published JUST BEFORE several wildfires swept Texas. Good timing, Texas Tech…!)

Researchers studied pyrogeography, the distribution and behavior of wildfire, on a global scale with thermal-infrared sensor data from 1996 – 2006 which were obtained from European Space Agency satellites. Scientists studied not only WHERE wildfires occurred, but also the common environmental characteristics associated with the risk of those fires. Researchers then incorporated those variables into projections for how future climate changes will affect the occurrences of wildfires worldwide. Study author Max Moritz, assistant cooperative extension specialist in wildland fire at UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources and co-director of the UC Center for Fire Research & Outreach described the study as the first attempt to quantitatively model why we see fire where it occurs across the entire planet. The two groups of variables include the presence of sufficient vegetation to burn and the window in time when conditions are hot and dry enough for ignition to occur.

Regions of increased and decreased fire invasion were identified. Prelimary results identified hotspots of fire invasion forming in parts of the western United States and the Tibetan Plateau.

Scientists warned in 2006 that climate change could increase bushfire risk in southeastern Australia. Three years later, after years of drought, temperatures that were 20 degrees above normal ignited the deadliest fire in Australia’s history. Coauthor Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and associate professor of geosciences at Texas Tech University stated that Australia fires showed us that things can happen faster than we think. Although the Australian fires of February 2009 cannot be attributed directly to climate change, “climate change will increase the risk of conditions conducive to such devastating wildfires in the near future,” according to Hayhoe.

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