By promoting exceptionally dry and unstable conditions in the atmosphere, climate change may promote larger, more extreme wildfire in the Western United States, a new study suggests.
As part of the research, published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, scientists used multiple regional climate models to simulate how atmospheric conditions may change in mountainous parts of the West during August under a shifting climate.
Specifically, they looked at something called the Haines Index — a measure of dry and unstable air in the lower atmosphere. The simulations indicate that from 2041 to 2070 there will be more days with high HI values, and more consecutive days with high values as well.
“This suggests that future atmospheric environments will be more conducive to erratic wildfires in the mountainous regions of the western U.S.,” the researchers write.
Led by Michigan State University’s Lifeng Luo, the scientists note that average fire size has been increasing in the West. That trend was illustrated dramatically in 2012, when the number of fires, 6,948, was the second fewest since 2000, yet more acres burned, 3.6 million, than in any other year during that period.
They also point out that wildfire season has been getting longer in the West.
Coming to grips with longer seasons characterized by larger and more erratic wildfires will be quite a challenge. Of course, other factors will play a role too, including precipitation, the availability of fuels, the frequency of lightning, and fire suppression activities. Some of these factors we can influence, others not so much.
But there is one additional factor that we unquestionably can control: How we choose to live in this naturally fire-prone environment. That will be the topic of future posts. So stay tuned.