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The Fire-Climate Connection

The Fire-Climate Connection

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ISSUE 1 - October 2007

JFSP-funded research is exploring and quantifying relationships among the large-scale drivers of climate and the occurrence and extent of wildfire in the various regions of the western United States.
ISSUE 1 - October 2007

JFSP-funded research is exploring and quantifying relationships among the large-scale drivers of climate and the occurrence and extent of wildfire in the various regions of the western United States.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Joint Fire Science Program on Nov 01, 2012
Copyright:Public Domain


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Fire Science DigeSt iSSue 1 OctOBer 2007
th F-clma coo
 periodic re. Climate, interacting with the ecosystem to produce wildre regimes, is largely responsible for theconsiderable differences in the forest types that exist acrossthe West at various latitudes and elevations. Factors such as precipitation, temperature, and topography (which, over thelong haul, is also driven by climate) combine to inuencethe vegetation that can grow in a given place, as well as thetiming, severity, and extent of burns. These in turn inuencethe type of forest that gets established. Forests thus owetheir distinctive identities to historical patterns of climateand recurring re.Pre-twentieth-century re was highly variable acrossdifferent landscapes. Large, stand-replacing res weretypical of forests in cool, wet climates, such as coastalDouglas-r and interior, high-elevation lodgepole pineand Engelmann spruce. In contrast, lower-lying forests inwarmer, drier climates tended to experience less intenseres more often, about every 5 to 20 years. Such res in the ponderosa pine forests of the high desert of the southwesternUnited States or the mixed conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada, for instance, would kill many young trees and mostshrubs, but would spare the older, re-resistant trees andrenew a grassy or herbaceous understory.Recent decades have brought a shift to more-severeres in some locations, disrupting historical patterns and putting unaccustomed stress on forest ecosystems, especiallythose adapted to low-level periodic re. The res’ effectsare often exacerbated by drought and insect attack, both of which are expected to increase with rising temperatures.These assaults add up to a complex of stressors that can alter the composition and structure of forest ecosystems.
Qk aod
The rise of global temperatures that began in the pastcentury was a rapid reversal of a much longer coolingtrend. The effects of warming are not smooth or steady, but discontinuous in space and time. In general, the placesand times that were coolest to start with have warmed themost: nighttime low temperatures, winter temperatures, andtemperatures at high latitudes and high altitudes. Not only
iSSue 1 OctOBer 2007
In recent decades, large res in the West have becomemore frequent, more widespread, and potentially moredeadly. In 2003, a particularly severe re season, wildres burned about 4 million acres, destroyed 5,000 structures,and took the lives of 30 reghters.In addition, dealing with wildres is becoming moreand more expensive. The 2003 re season racked up morethan $1 billion in suppression costs. The bill for suppressingwildres on public lands has exceeded the amountappropriated almost every year since 1990, according to theGeneral Accounting Ofce.
 JFSP-funded research is exploring and quantifying relationships among the large-scale drivers of climate
and the occurrence and extent of wildre in the various regions of the western United States.
Wildre suppression costs have exceeded appropriations almostevery year since 1990. (Reprinted from GAO-04-612.)
Wildre has always been a periodic visitor to westernforests, part of the cycle of natural dynamics that makethese forests what they are. Until recently, the standardexplanation for increased wildres in recent decades has been an unnatural buildup of fuel stemming from a centuryof re suppression. Ecologists now say the story is far morecomplicated than that—that climate, in fact, can have astronger ngerprint in many areas.
A omplx of sssos
Climate is, of course, the most important naturalshaper of forest ecosystems. It affects the location andcomposition of forests and the frequency and extent of 
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 conuence 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 wildres 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-severityres 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 inre 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 ServicePacic Northwest (PNW) Research Station. “Unfortunately,we don’t always know what those thresholds are until wesee them appear in specic 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 wildre trends continue, however, the forestedlandscape may become a source of carbon rather than a sink.
u qsos
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 specic linkages are asyet poorly understood. More practically, from a land-management perspective, it is not easy to sort through thescientic 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
Calculating Carbon
Carbon dioxide is a natural product of the combustion of living or once-living material. A wildre 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 wildredepends 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 wildre is so efcient, 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 wildres 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)wildres in western U.S. forests; the black line indicates meanMarch through August temperature. (B) The black line traces thetiming of streamow 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 wildre 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
Fire Science DigeSt iSSue 1 OctOBer 2007
climate records to make a strong link between risingtemperatures and increasing wildre in the northern RockyMountains. The researchers, led by A.L. (Tony) Westerlingof the University of California at Merced, found thatwarming temperatures and earlier springs are triggeringincreased wildre activity in forests in the northern Rockies.In the face of these trends, what’s a manager to do?How does climate affect re conditions on the land? Andhow will a changing climate alter those patterns? Scientistssupported by the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) andothers are striving to discover and quantify the cascadeof dynamics between large-scale movements of oceanand atmosphere and the specic weather conditions thatinuence when and where a wildre will occur. Theyare also working on turning re-climate research into practical tools for managers—developing reliable supportfor decisions on how to make landscapes more resilient tore and how to allocate re suppression and fuel-treatmentdollars where they will do the most good.
Does climate affect wildre? It is well known that rerisk is tied to weather, and weather conditions are a keyinuence on whether wildre will occur and how far it willspread.Specically—and forest managers know this well fromexperience—drought is the key factor in how many reswill be ignited that year and how much land they will burn.Summer drought is particularly important in the dry West; inthe eastern United States winter and spring precipitation isvery important. “We all know we get res when it’s hot anddry,” says Carl Skinner, geographer and science team leader at the Forest Service Pacic Southwest Research Station inRedding, California. “We’re trying to understand what setsus up for these hot, dry periods.”Drought affects soil moisture, which affects dryness of fuels, which affects both the likelihood they will ignite andthe size of the area the res will burn. Drought is intimately bound up with re’s other main factor, temperature. Warmer air leads to more evaporation of water from the surface. If soil is completely dry, evaporation decreases and its coolingeffects are diminished, so that surface temperatures riseeven further—a positive feedback that increases drought’sseverity.Temperature also affects the timing of seasonal events:for example, spring snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains.Timing of snowmelt has a big inuence on how dry thesummer will be and how much moisture will be in the soil,and hence how severe the re season will be.At the other end of the scale from the local weather effects are the large-scale physical processes making themhappen. “The Earth’s climate is a system of interactions between the Sun’s energy and the Earth’s atmosphere,oceans, and biosphere,” according to Tony Westerling,lead author of the study linking increased wildre withearlier springs in the Rockies. “Weather is the observed
Springtime in the Rockies
 A key piece of research on the re-climate connectionstrongly suggests that a changing climate is drivingthe increase in frequency and extent of wildres in thenorthern Rockies. The paper, by A.L. Westerling, H.G.Hidalgo, D.R. Cayan, and T.W. Swetnam, was publishedin August 2006 in
. It draws on a large set of weather measurements to show that higher temperaturesare causing spring to come earlier in the northernRockies, leading to drought and increased re later in thesummer.The researchers examined a comprehensive timelineof 1,166 large wildres that occurred in the West since1970 and compared it with rainfall records in sevendifferent forested areas. Over that 35-year period, theyfound that spring and summer temperatures were on therise, snowpacks were melting earlier, and the summer dry season was becoming longer and hotter. The lengthof the re season (the period when large wildres areactually burning) has increased by 78 days—more thana month on average at both ends of the summer. Four times as many wildres have occurred since 1987 asduring the previous 17 years, and six times as muchacreage has burned.The researchers attribute the increase to rising springand summer temperatures, an earlier snowmelt, and aconsequently longer dry period in the summer and fall.Early-snowmelt years had ve times as many res aslate-snowmelt years.Effects varied by region and forest type. The greatestincrease in frequency of wildre was in mid- to high-elevation spruce-r and lodgepole pine forests in thenorthern Rockies. These are forests where re is aninfrequent visitor, and so suppression efforts have hadlittle effect on natural patterns. Forests in the Southwest,which have a more extensive history of re suppression,showed almost as great an increase in large res, but theincrease seems less strongly related to earlier snowmelt.If climate change rather than fuel buildup is the maindriver of forest res in these areas, say Westerling andhis coauthors, then year-by-year restoration and fueltreatments alone—the cornerstone of current federalwildre policy—will not be very effective in reducing thearea burned.However, in many situations, fuel treatments have beenshown to reduce the severity of res when they do strike.Long-term management plans will need to anticipatewhat a changing climate will do to a given forest or regionand prescribe fuel treatments and restoration measuresaccording to what is possible and preferable.

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