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High Risk of Wildfire in the US predicted by Climate Models

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Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md conducted a study using satellite data and climate models, predicting drier conditions and increased risk of wildfires in the next few decades. At the annual meeting of American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, the team presented their findings that cover information about future climate change, carbon emissions from fires as well as length and strength of the fire season.

The analysis of future U.S. fire activity was based on current fire trends and predicted emissions. Doug Morton, researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, comments that by 2050, based on the models predictions, fire activities and frequency of events will increase due to drier conditions.

The team led by Morton used climate projections to establish the influence of dryness on fire activity. The results include scenarios with both high and low greenhouse gas emissions, but in both cases there was an increase in frequency, intensity and length of the fire season across all regions of the U.S.

The burnt areas in the U.S. reached 2.5 million hectares in August 2012, based on figures from the fire emission databases. This is close to the record set in 2011, but it is a lot larger than what has been observed in the past 15 years.

Louis Giglio from the University of Maryland at College Park and Goddard stated that satellites are the only mean for tracking this large scale event.

The quantity of released carbon from fires in the U.S West was estimated using satellite imagery from Landsat. The amount of burnt biomass and the speed of release of carbon in the atmosphere were quantified. The findings indicated that there is a steady increase of carbon emissions due to fires from  8 teragrams for the period 1984 to 1995, to 20 teragrams for 1996-2008, and increasing 2.4 times for the following period to date.

Chris Williams from Clark University in Worcesteris convinced that this trend will continue as the temperatures increase and the climate get drier and warmer, which ultimately would increase the size of burnt territories. This has been confirmed by previous research as well, indicating that there is established relationship between fire activity, dryness and evaporation.

Other teams also recommend that in future, fire emissions should be monitored more effectively in order to protect and benefit human health.

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