Study: Western forests under rising threat and humans are to blame
October 11, 2016
BOISE, Idaho — A new study of Western forest fires confirms what is already apparent — wildfire seasons are getting longer and more destructive.
But researchers with the University of Idaho and Columbia University also say humans are to blame.
The study made public Monday says human-caused global warming contributed an additional 16,000 square miles of burned forests from 1984 to 2015.
Researchers say the 16,000 square miles represent half of the forest areas that burned over the last three decades.
"We're no longer waiting for human-caused climate change to leave its fingerprint on wildfire across the western U.S.," John Abatzoglou, the study's lead author and an associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho, said in a statement. "It's already here."
The authors of the study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say it's the first to try to quantify how much human-caused climate change has increased wildfires in Western forests. Some other factors that had to be considered as contributing to the increase, the report said, included a legacy of fire suppression in the West, natural climate variability, and human settlement.
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The study found that longer and hotter dry spells are causing Western forests to dry out and become more susceptible to wildfires.
Specifically, researchers said, spring and summer temperatures have warmed by 2 to 2.5 degrees since 1950. Researchers said that warming accounts for 55 percent of what they call "fuel aridity" from 1979 to 2015. The study attributed the other 45 percent to natural climate variations.
The study found that since 2000 there's been a 75 percent increase in forested lands with elevated aridity and nine more days each year with dry forests especially susceptible to wildfires.
"Anthropogenic climate change has emerged as a driver of increased forest fire activity," the report says.
Park Williams of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and a co-author of the study, said the report provides a better understanding of the effects human-caused global warming has on Western forests.
"This knowledge will allow us to make more educated fire and land management decisions," he said.
The study concluded that the trend of increased forest aridity resulting in large wildfires is likely to continue for decades while there are enough trees to fuel the flames.