A new study has found that climate change is responsible for doubling the area of the Western US affected by wildfires since the 1980s. The research comes after a year in which wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes, cost millions of dollars in taxpayer money, and even yielded a death toll. The new study by researchers from Columbia University and the University of Idaho found that climate change has been responsible for 3 decades of increasingly severe and widespread wildfires, doubling the area affected by the fires since 1984. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research found that higher temperatures and the resulting drier land have led to wildfires in 16,000 additional square miles of forest than would have been expected 30 years ago. Temperatures in forested areas of the Western US have risen an average of 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, a trend that scientists expect to only get worse in coming decades. The researchers predicted that wildfires will “increase exponentially” as the climate continues to warm.
One of the coauthors of the study, A. Park Williams, who is a bioclimatologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said that by mid-century, there may no longer be enough vegetation to sustain wildfires in portions of the Western US.
For now, according to Williams, “no matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear. 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.”
The study builds on earlier research, such as a 2014 study that showed that climate change was a “very likely factor” in an increase in seven wildfires annually from 1984 to 2011.
“We looked at the probability that increases of this magnitude could be random, and in each case it was less than 1 percent,” said Philip Dennison, one of the lead authors of that study, speaking to USA Today.
As discussed by research from 2015, forest fires themselves reduce the ability of the Earth’s biosphere to absorb carbon dioxide, creating a cycle that speeds up the climate change that brought about more wildfires to begin with.
Last year’s study warns:
“When average fire weather seasons are longer-than-normal or when long seasons impacted more global burnable area, net global terrestrial carbon uptake is reduced.”