Fire Science DigeSt iSSue 1 OctOBer 2007
rising mean temperatures are of concern, however, but alsoan increase in the variability of the climate that might leadto more extreme weather events.Fire scientists and land managers are particularlyworried about the conuence of warming temperatures,high fuel loads, and impending drought in particular areas.“Many of us who work in climate and ecology think we’refacing another megadrought, a natural trigger to stand-replacing res—but this time with unnaturally large fuelloads in some forests poised for severe burns,” says TomSwetnam, a forest ecologist and re scientist who directsthe Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the Universityof Arizona. Some scientists predict that the area burnedin wildres will double or even triple over the next 50years. At risk are human communities, soil productivity,forest biodiversity, drinking water sources, and habitat for sensitive species.In extreme cases, a one-two punch of high-severityres and a warming climate could alter environmentalconditions so much that native seedlings would have a hardtime getting established after a stand-replacing re. As far as can be determined from ancient records, past climatechanges, although slower than this one, have produced largeecological reorganizations along with dramatic changes inre regimes. “Systems can change quickly when ecologicalthresholds are exceeded,” says Don McKenzie, researchecologist with the Fire and Environmental ResearchApplications (FERA) team of the USDA Forest ServicePacic Northwest (PNW) Research Station. “Unfortunately,we don’t always know what those thresholds are until wesee them appear in specic ecosystems, usually in uniqueways.”What is more, scientists worry that increasing reswill erode the capacity of forests to absorb carbon fromthe atmosphere. Currently, forests in the western UnitedStates are net carbon sinks, soaking up 20 to 40 percent of all carbon sequestered in the country. That means they helpsoften the greenhouse effect by taking up carbon emittedinto the atmosphere from natural and human sources. If current wildre trends continue, however, the forestedlandscape may become a source of carbon rather than a sink.
Recent research by climatologists, biologists,geographers, and re ecologists has revealed that res inwestern forests are more strongly linked to climate thanwas previously thought. But the specic linkages are asyet poorly understood. More practically, from a land-management perspective, it is not easy to sort through thescientic ndings and pick out the most useful ones for planning and on-the-ground management.The questions have become urgent with successiverecord-setting re seasons in 2005 and 2006. A key study published in
in August of 2006 used real-time
Carbon dioxide is a natural product of the combustion of living or once-living material. A wildre throws enormousquantities of carbon dioxide into the air. Estimating exactlyhow much is a complicated business, because forestsvary widely in the amount of biomass—living or once-livingmatter—they contain. Carbon moves constantly betweenits solid and gaseous states. Trees take in carbon duringthe summer growing season and release it during winter dormancy. (In mild-winter areas, some trees and other vegetation photosynthesize and x carbon all year long.)The amount of carbon dioxide released in a wildredepends on the total biomass of the forest burned andhow thoroughly it is burned. Biomass in a temperateconiferous forest may measure 1,000 kg to the hectare,according to John Christie, a chemist at LaTrobeUniversity in Victoria, Australia. Carbon dioxide containsabout 27 percent carbon. Therefore, if a re were toconsume the total biomass of such a forest, each burnedhectare would theoretically release 27 percent of itsbiomass, or 270 kg, as carbon into the atmosphere.In reality, no wildre is so efcient, says Christie, so suchestimates need to be moderated considerably. In addition,biomass contains other elements that are emitted as gasand particulate matter. Nevertheless, more and bigger wildres threaten to turn forests into an increasing sourceof atmospheric carbon dioxide, a major contributor toglobal warming.
(A) The red bars indicate annual frequency of large (>400 ha)wildres in western U.S. forests; the black line indicates meanMarch through August temperature. (B) The black line traces thetiming of streamow in snowmelt-dominated streams from 1970. (C)Length of the annual re season from 1970, shown as the lengthof time between the rst and last large-re ignition and last large-re control. (From Westerling, A.L., H.G. Hidalgo, D.R. Cayan, andT.W. Swetnam. 2006. Warming and earlier spring increase westernU.S. forest wildre activity.
313 (5789): 940–943, 18 August2006; Reprinted with permission from AAAS.)
1: First Discovery 2: Last Discovery 3: Last Control
w i l d f i r e f r e q u e n c y 0 1 0 0
1 3 1 4 1 5 T ( ° C ) - 1 5 - 5 5 1 5 d a y s ( a n o m a l y ) 0 1 0 0 3 0 0 d a y o f y e a r d a y o f y e a r 0 1 0 0 3 0 0 d a y s ( a n o m a l y ) - 1 5 - 5 5 1 5