Why Fires Burning Higher In The Mountains Are A Clear Sign Of Climate Change

yv27nbnoz3

The Western U.S. appears headed for another dangerous fire season, and a new study shows that even high mountain areas once considered too wet to burn are at increasing risk as the climate warms.

Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. West is in severe to exceptional drought right now, including large parts of the Rocky Mountains, Cascades and Sierra Nevada. The situation is so severe that the Colorado River basin is on the verge of its first official water shortage declaration, and forecasts suggest another hot, dry summer is on the way.

Warm and dry conditions like these are a recipe for wildfire disaster.

In a new study published May 24, 2021, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, our team of fire and climate scientists and engineers found that forest fires are now reaching higher, normally wetter elevations. And they are burning there at rates unprecedented in recent fire history.

While some people focus on historical fire suppression and other forest management practices as reasons for the West’s worsening fire problem, these high-elevation forests have had little human intervention. The results provide a clear indication that climate change is enabling these normally wet forests to burn.

As wildfires creep higher up mountains, another tenth of the West’s forest area is now at risk, according to our study. That creates new hazards for mountain communities, with impacts on downstream water supplies and the plants and wildlife that call these forests home.

Why Fires Burning Higher In The Mountains Are A Clear Sign Of Climate Change Forest fires advanced to higher elevations as the climate dried from 1984 to 2017. Every 200 meters equals 656 feet. Mojtaba Sadegh, CC BY-ND

Rising fire risk in the high mountains

In the new study, we analyzed records of all fires larger than 1,000 acres (405 hectares) in the mountainous regions of the contiguous Western U.S. between 1984 and 2017.

The amount of land that burned increased across all elevations during that period, but the largest increase occurred above 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). To put that elevation into perspective, Denver – the mile-high city – sits at 5,280 feet, and Aspen, Colorado, is at 8,000 feet. These high-elevation areas are largely remote mountains and forests with some small communities and ski areas.

The area burning above 8,200 feet more than tripled in 2001-2017 compared with 1984-2000.

Our results show that climate warming has diminished the high-elevation flammability barrier – the point where forests historically were too wet to burn regularly because the snow normally lingered well into summer and started falling again early in the fall. Fires advanced about 826 feet (252 meters) uphill in the Western mountains over those three decades.

The Cameron Peak Fire in Colorado in 2020 was the state’s largest fire in its history, burning over 208,000 acres (84,200 hectares) and is a prime example of a high-elevation forest fire. The fire burned in forests extending to 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) and reached the upper tree line of the Rocky Mountains.

We found that rising temperatures in the past 34 years have helped to extend the fire territory in the West to an additional 31,470 square miles (81,500 square kilometers) of high-elevation forests. That means a staggering 11% of all Western U.S. forests – an area similar in size to South Carolina – are susceptible to fire now that weren’t three decades ago.

Can’t blame fire suppression here

In lower-elevation forests, several factors contribute to fire activity, including the presence of more people in wildland areas and a history of fire suppression.

In the early 1900s, Congress commissioned the U.S. Forest Service to manage forest fires, which resulted in a focus on suppressing fires – a policy that continued through the 1970s. This caused flammable underbrush that would normally be cleared out by occasional natural blazes to accumulate. The increase in biomass in many lower elevation forests across the West has been associated with increases in high-severity fires and megafires. At the same time, climate warming has dried out forests in the Western U.S., making them more prone to large fires.

Why Fires Burning Higher In The Mountains Are A Clear Sign Of Climate Change On average, fires have spread 826 feet (252 meters) higher into the mountains in recent decades, exposing an additional 31,400 square miles (81,500 square kilometers) of forests to fire. Mojtaba Sadegh, CC BY-ND

By focusing on high-elevation fires, in areas with little history of fire suppression, we can more clearly see the influence of climate change.

Most high-elevation forests haven’t been subjected to much fire suppression, logging or other human activities, and because trees at these high elevations are in wetter forests, they historically have long return intervals between fires, typically a century or more. Yet they experienced the highest rate of increase in fire activity in the past 34 years. We found that the increase is strongly correlated with the observed warming.

Why Fires Burning Higher In The Mountains Are A Clear Sign Of Climate Change

Prior to 1983, federal wildland fire agencies did not track official wildfire data using current reporting processes.  
Chart: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND Source: National Interagency Coordination Center 

High mountain fires create new problems

High-elevation fires have implications for natural and human systems.

High mountains are natural water towers that normally provide a sustained source of water to millions of people in dry summer months in the Western U.S. The scars that wildfires leave behind – known as burn scars – affect how much snow can accumulate at high elevations. This can influence the timing, quality and quantity of water that reaches reservoirs and rivers downstream.

High-elevation fires also remove standing trees that act as anchor points that normally stabilize the snowpack, raising the risk of avalanches.

The loss of tree canopy also exposes mountain streams to the Sun, increasing water temperatures in the cold headwater streams. Increasing stream temperatures can harm fish and the larger wildlife and predators that rely on them.

Climate change is increasing fire risk in many regions across the globe, and studies show that this trend will continue as the planet warms. The increase in fires in the high mountains is another warning to the U.S. West and elsewhere of the risks ahead as the climate changes.

About The Authors

Mojtaba Sadegh, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, Boise State University; John Abatzoglou, Associate Professor of Engineering, University of California, Merced, and Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, Ph.D. Student in Engineering, McGill University

Related Books

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know

by Joseph Romm
0190866101The essential primer on what will be the defining issue of our time, Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® is a clear-eyed overview of the science, conflicts, and implications of our warming planet. From Joseph Romm, Chief Science Advisor for National Geographic's Years of Living Dangerously series and one of Rolling Stone's "100 people who are changing America," Climate Change offers user-friendly, scientifically rigorous answers to the most difficult (and commonly politicized) questions surrounding what climatologist Lonnie Thompson has deemed "a clear and present danger to civilization.". Available On Amazon

Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future second edition Edition

by Jason Smerdon
0231172834This second edition of Climate Change is an accessible and comprehensive guide to the science behind global warming. Exquisitely illustrated, the text is geared toward students at a variety of levels. Edmond A. Mathez and Jason E. Smerdon provide a broad, informative introduction to the science that underlies our understanding of the climate system and the effects of human activity on the warming of our planet.Mathez and Smerdon describe the roles that the atmosphere and ocean play in our climate, introduce the concept of radiation balance, and explain climate changes that occurred in the past. They also detail the human activities that influence the climate, such as greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions and deforestation, as well as the effects of natural phenomena.  Available On Amazon

The Science of Climate Change: A Hands-On Course

by Blair Lee, Alina Bachmann
194747300XThe Science of Climate Change: A Hands-On Course uses text and eighteen hands-on activities to explain and teach the science of global warming and climate change, how humans are responsible, and what can be done to slow or stop the rate of global warming and climate change. This book is a complete, comprehensive guide to an essential environmental topic. Subjects covered in this book include: how molecules transfer energy from the sun to warm the atmosphere, greenhouse gases, the greenhouse effect, global warming, the Industrial Revolution, the combustion reaction, feedback loops, the relationship between weather and climate, climate change, carbon sinks, extinction, carbon footprint, recycling, and alternative energy. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 


 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

More Articles By This Author

You May Also Like

INNERSELF VOICES

illustration of a film strip with various scenic pictures on each frame
Designing a New Future for Yourself
by Carl Greer PhD, PsyD
In the physical world, things have a past and a future, a beginning, and an end. For example, I’m…
teacher standing in front of students in an open classroom
Becoming Passionate About Public Education Again
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
We are almost all lucky to have someone in our lives to encourage and motivate us and try to show…
Aurora photo by Valerie Pond, October 10, 2021, Yellowknife, NT, Canada
Horoscope Current Week: October 11 - 17, 2021
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
Flower growing through a chain-link fence
So Many Questions... So Many Answers?
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf.com
We go through life with so many questions. Some are simple. What day is it? What will I have for…
rainbow over a field
Give Yourself Time, Be Kind, and Heal in Your Own Way
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf.com
Unfortunately many of us have become victims of instant gratification. We want to succeed and we…
woman's head with a crack and with tree growing from the back of her head
Opening to a Whole New Way of Being
by Rabbi Wayne Dosick
Sometimes a pandemic—no matter how devastating—is just a pandemic. But sometimes— most times—it is…
Image of an open book floating in the sky with a tree growing out of the open book
Do You Believe in Miracles?
by Barry Vissell
Albert Einstein famously said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing…
a rainbow in the palm of an open hand
Finding Silver Linings and Rainbows
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf.com
Be open to discovering the gifts life is offering you -- expect silver linings and rainbows, be on…
Spirit Touching Briefly into Form: Wisdom from a Damselfly
Spirit Touching Briefly into Form: Wisdom from a Damselfly
by Nancy Windheart
As I waded into the cold water, I noticed the body of a blue pond damselfly floating on the…
When You Can't Make Up Your Mind
When You Can't Make Up Your Mind
by Jude Bijou, M.A., M.F.T.
Whether you're endlessly agonizing over an issue, it's a tough place to hang out. Maybe this, maybe…
We Create Our Own Reality By How We See and Interpret Things
We Create Our Own Reality By How We See and Interpret Things
by Pierre Pradervand
How I see my life path is a choice I make minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day… And this…

MOST READ

How Living On The Coast Is Linked To Poor Health
How Living On The Coast Is Linked To Poor Health
by Jackie Cassell, Professor of Primary Care Epidemiology, Honorary Consultant in Public Health, Brighton and Sussex Medical School
The precarious economies of many traditional seaside towns have declined still further since the…
The Most Common Issues for Earth Angels: Love, Fear, and Trust
The Most Common Issues for Earth Angels: Love, Fear, and Trust
by Sonja Grace
As you experience being an earth angel, you will discover that the path of service is riddled with…
How Can I Know What's Best For Me?
How Can I Know What's Best For Me?
by Barbara Berger
One of the biggest things I've discovered working with clients everyday is how extremely difficult…
What Men’s Roles In 1970s Anti-sexism Campaigns Can Teach Us About Consent
What Men’s Roles In 1970s Anti-sexism Campaigns Can Teach Us About Consent
by Lucy Delap, University of Cambridge
The 1970s anti-sexist men’s movement had an infrastructure of magazines, conferences, men’s centres…
Honesty: The Only Hope for New Relationships
Honesty: The Only Hope for New Relationships
by Susan Campbell, Ph.D.
According to most of the singles I have met in my travels, the typical dating situation is fraught…
Chakra Healing Therapy: Dancing toward the Inner Champion
Chakra Healing Therapy: Dancing toward the Inner Champion
by Glen Park
Flamenco dancing is a delight to watch. A good flamenco dancer exudes an exuberant self-confidence…
Giving Up All Hope Could Be Beneficial For You
Giving Up All Hope Could Be Beneficial For You
by Jude Bijou, M.A., M.F.T.
If you're waiting for a change and frustrated it's not happening, maybe it would be beneficial to…
An Astrologer introduces the Nine Dangers of Astrology
An Astrologer introduces the Nine Dangers of Astrology
by Tracy Marks
Astrology is a powerful art, capable of enhancing our lives by enabling us to understand our own…

follow InnerSelf on

facebook icontwitter iconyoutube iconinstagram iconpintrest iconrss icon

 Get The Latest By Email

Weekly Magazine Daily Inspiration

AVAILABLE LANGUAGES

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeeliwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptroruesswsvthtrukurvi

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.