Climate change and wildfire: Synthesis of recent findings

May 21, 2013

Concerns continue to grow about the effects of climate change on fire. Wildfires are expected to increase 50 percent across the United States under a changing climate, over 100 percent in areas of the West by 2050 as projected by some studies. Of equal concern to scientists and policymakers alike are the atmospheric effects of wildfire emissions on climate.

A new article published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management by U.S. Forest Service scientists synthesizes recent findings on the interactions between fire and climate and outlines future research needs. Authored by research meteorologists Yongqiang Liu and Scott Goodrick from the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) and Warren Heilman from the Northern Research Station, the article homes in on the effect of emissions from wildfires on long-term .

"While research has historically focused on fire-weather interactions, there is increasing attention paid to fire-climate interactions," says Liu, lead author and team leader with the SRS Center for Forest Disturbance Science. "Weather, the day-to-day state of the atmosphere in a region, influences individual fires within a fire season. In contrast, when we talk about fire climate, we're looking at the statistics of weather over a certain period. Fire climate sets atmospheric conditions for in longer time frames and larger geographic scales."

Wildfires impact atmospheric conditions through emissions of gases, particles, water, and heat. Some of the article focuses on radiative forcing from fire emissions. Radiative forcing refers to the change in net (down minus up) irradiance (solar plus longwave) at the , the top of the troposphere where most weather takes place.

can generate radiative forcing mainly through scattering and absorbing solar radiation (direct radiative forcing), and modifying the cloud droplet concentrations and lifetime, and hence the cloud radiative properties (indirect radiative forcing). The change in radiation can cause further changes in global temperatures and precipitation.

"Wildfire emissions can have remarkable impacts on radiative forcing," says Liu. "During fire events or burning seasons, smoke particles reduce overall absorbed by the atmosphere at local and regional levels. At the global scale, fire emissions of carbon dioxide contribute substantially to the global greenhouse effect."

Other major findings covered in the synthesis include:

  • The of smoke particles can generate significant regional climate effects, leading to lower temperatures at the ground surface.
  • Smoke particles mostly suppress cloud formation and precipitation. Fire events could lead to more droughts.
  • Black carbon, essentially the fine particles of carbon that color smoke, plays different roles in affecting climate. In the middle and lower atmosphere, its presence could lead to a more stable atmosphere. Black carbon plays a special role in the snow-climate feedback loop, accelerating snow melting.

Land surface changes may be triggered that also play into future effects. "Wildfire is a disturbance of ecosystems," says Liu. "Besides the atmospheric impacts, wildfires also modify terrestrial ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, soil fertility, grazing value, biodiversity, and tourism. The effects can in turn trigger land use changes that in turn affect the atmosphere."

The article concludes by outlining issues that lead to uncertainties in understanding fire-climate interactions and the future research needed to address them.

Explore further: Isolated indigenous communities of South America under threat

More information: www.sciencedirect.com/science/… ii/S037811271300114X

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Future fire -- still a wide open climate question

Jul 07, 2011

How the frequency and intensity of wildfires and intentional biomass burning will change in a future climate requires closer scientific attention, according to CSIRO's Dr Melita Keywood.

Wind and cold carry dust to new heights

May 06, 2013

(Phys.org) —Scientists at China's Lanzhou University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that dust lifted from the Taklimakan Desert during a dust storm had a significant effect on the regional ...

Recommended for you

Big data confirms climate extremes are here to stay

7 hours ago

In a paper published online today in the journal Scientific Reports, published by Nature, Northeastern researchers Evan Kodra and Auroop Ganguly found that while global temperature is indeed increasing, so too is the variab ...

How might climate change affect our food supply?

9 hours ago

It's no easy question to answer, but prudence demands that we try. Thus, Microsoft and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have teamed up to tackle "food resilience," one of several themes ...

Groundwater is safe in potential N.Y. fracking area

9 hours ago

Two Cornell hydrologists have completed a thorough groundwater examination of drinking water in a potential hydraulic fracturing area in New York's Southern Tier. They determined that drinking water in potable ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ScooterG
1 / 5 (5) May 27, 2013
50 years of forest mis-management takes a heavy toll.

Extiguishing fires, dis-allowing logging, no mechanical thinning - now we have forests that are horrendously overgrown. The trees are four inches in diameter, a hundred feet tall, and growing so close together you can barely walk between them. They burn like a tinder box. If you go through now and thin them, the trees could never stand a snow load.

Forest management takes long-term vision and common sense, two qualities that radical enviro-nazis do not possess.

If you need proof, go visit a privately-managed forest and look around.
Neinsense99
3.3 / 5 (7) May 27, 2013
"Forest management takes long-term vision and common sense,two qualities that radical enviro-nazis do not possess." Your conclusion does not follow.

I don't think rampant paranoia is conducive to proper management either.