Climate Change May Stoke More Extreme Wildfire

By Tom Yulsman | August 5, 2013 11:47 am

Numerous wildfires are seen burning in California and Oregon in this image  captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite on August 4, 2013. (Image: NASA)

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.

  • mememine

    Help my house could be on fire maybe?
    Did Bush goose step billions of helpless children to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated climate crisis like a fear mongering Greenzi? No but climate blame was our Iraq War without a real enemy and this “maybe” madness of a “could be” and never “will be” crisis was unsustainable. History has doomed climate blame.

    97.3% of all scientists agree that the vast amounts of accumulated evidence suggests that there is the likelihood of a strong possibility that climate change could potentially be real and happening and could lead to complete unstoppable warming of the entire planet and or result in the probability of more catastrophic and or severe weather events.

    In over 28 year now not one single scientist anywhere at any time have ever said climate change will eventually or inevitably or unavoidably be or imminently or even just “WILL” be a climate crisis and if you think a little tiny catastrophic climate crisis is even possible………………. So how close to unstoppable warming will the lab coats take us before they are forced to say a crisis “WILL” happen not just might happen. What has to happen for science to say a crisis is as eventual as they say comet hits are?

    28 years of science only saying “could be” instead of “WILL be” a crisis proves it won’t be a crisis and that you remaining believers wanted this misery to be have been real. Science didn’t lie, you did and who said it was a crime to study something or a crime to just say something “might” happen?

    This reefer madness of climate blame has made us all modern day witch burners for the history books.

    • Steve Goddard

      Your statistics are utter nonsense, Most of the studies made no attribution and only a tiny percentage suggest “unstoppable warming.”

      If you have to lie, your belief system is worthless

      • Tom Yulsman

        For once, we agree. 😉 (Although I’m puzzled why you’d bother to respond to someone who is so incoherent.)

        As for wildfire, there are at least three factors to consider: The number of fires; how much territory burns; and the length of the fire season. We’re not even remotely close to the end of the season, so we don’t know what the extent of fires will be, or how many will occur before it’s all over.

        You also fail to mention (perhaps because you didn’t read what I wrote or you just chose to ignore it?) that the number fires has decreased while the total acreage burned has increased. Many factors can be involved in this, including fuel loads, fire suppression, and climatic factors such as heat and drought.

        I’d also caution you about making your argument around anyone connected with the 19 firefighters who died in the Yarnell Fire, or around anyone from the Black Forest area of Colorado for that matter. The fact that 2013 could possibly bring fewer fires on average than in the past would be very cold comfort to them.

        Which brings me to my final point: Whatever the role of climate change might be in Western wildfires, we do have control over one thing: How we choose to live in fire-prone areas. So would you agree that we should be trying to do much more to limit development using all tools at our disposal — including free market forces (think insurance, and federal fire-fighting funding) — in the riskiest parts of the still undeveloped wildland-urban interface?

  • Steve Goddard

    2013 is the second quietest fire season on record.

    There are no fires burning in the southwest today.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar