When it comes to global warming and wildfires, the bad news is that rising temperatures
and shifting rainfall patterns that accompany climate change will make some areas
more susceptible to outbreaks.
The good news is that by using thermal-infrared data from satellites, a group of scientists
at University of California, Berkeley, and Texas Tech University has identified common
characteristics associated with present-day global fire activity that may serve as
predictors for future wildfire hotspots. The results of the study will be published
April 7 in the journal PLoS ONE
"As we looked at wildfire around the world, we wondered whether we could identify
common factors that control its activity," said study author Katharine Hayhoe, an
atmospheric scientist and associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at
Texas Tech. "The fact that we have identified these characteristics means that we
can use climate models to simulate how those same characteristics are likely to change
in the future."
The research was conducted with support from The Nature Conservancy as part of the
organization's effort to consider wildfire effects when developing plans to protect
Jim Bergan, a Texas Tech alumnus and The Nature Conservancy's director of science
and stewardship in Texas, said that understanding wildfires now and in the future
is important to protect life and property as well as to keep nature in balance.
"Restoration through fire is an integral part of the conservancy's work and is especially
important in a large and diverse state such as Texas," Bergan said. "As this report
shows, our changing climate also means significant changes in fire patterns around
the world. We need to act quickly to share information globally to help others understand
the shift in wildfire risk and how managed burns are critical to protect wildlife
habitat and private property."
This is the first attempt to quantitatively model why we see fire where we see it
across the entire planet, said project investigator, Max Moritz, co-director of the
University of California Center for Fire Research & Outreach.
"The two essential suites of variables needed for fires include the presence of sufficient
vegetation to burn and the window in time when conditions are hot and dry enough for
ignition to occur," he said.
The researchers then used simulations of how climate change may alter these two essential
variables, based on scenarios of lower and mid-range future emissions developed by
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to examine future changes in fire activity.
They found that climate change is likely to significantly alter fire activity across
most of the planet in coming decades.
Preliminary results for the period 2010 to 2039 show hotspots of fire invasion forming
in the parts of the Western United States and the Tibetan Plateau. In contrast, the
likelihood of wildfires may decrease for some regions such as Northeast China and
A decrease in fire risk isn't necessarily a good thing, either, researchers said.
"Some species of trees rely on fires occurring at specific times to regenerate," said
lead investigator Meg Krawchuk, a postdoctoral fellow from the University of California,
Berkeley. "Any changes in a fire regime have the potential to dramatically alter the
landscape over time."
Previous models of fire activity have focused on specific regions, including Southern
California and Southeast Australia. In 2006, a report from Australia's national science
agency warned that climate change could increase bushfire risk in that region. Three
years later, a record-breaking heat wave that sent temperatures soaring 20 degrees
above average occurred on top of the longest, hottest drought in the region's history.
These conditions, consistent with those expected under climate change, set the stage
for the deadliest fire in Australia's history.
"What Australia showed us is that things can happen faster than we think," Hayhoe
said. "Although we cannot yet say whether climate change played a role in the February
fires in Australia, we do know that climate change will increase the risk of conditions
conducive to such devastating wildfires in the near future."
While climate change will alter future wildfire risks, most wildfires are started
by human activity or by lightning, she said.
"For that reason, we're trying to determine where climate change may be figuratively
piling up wood and tinder, creating the perfect conditions for when that match drops
or a lightning bolt strikes," Hayhoe said.
The researchers said this paper is a first step toward developing a comprehensive
picture of how climate change will alter fire risk around the world if substantial
cuts in greenhouse gas emissions do not occur soon. The next step, using a wider range
of climate projections, will identify consistent patterns of change. Subsequent calculations
will use a broader range of climate projections to develop reliable predictions for
A copy of this report can be obtained by contacting John Davis.
To access the story, visit http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0005102
Find Texas Tech news, experts and story ideas at www.media.ttu.edu.
CONTACT: Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor, Department of Geosciences, Texas Tech
(806) 742-0015, or email@example.com; Max Moritz, co-director, University of California Berkeley Center for Fire Research
(510) 642-7329, firstname.lastname@example.org
.; Jay Harrod, senior media relations manager, The Nature Conservancy,
(501) 614-5081, or email@example.com