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See Inside June 2011

Climate Change Increases Threat of Fire to U.S. West

Global warming could scorch the western U.S.

“If climate change drives temperature up a degree or two,” goes the common dismissal, “how bad could that be?”

Here’s an example: Higher temperatures draw moisture out of live and dead trees and brush, making them more flammable. The heat also can alter precipitation, as well as shift spring thaw earlier, lengthening the fire season. A one degree Celsius climb in average global temperature could cause the median area burned annually by wildfires in parts of the American West to increase up to sixfold. “A one-degree rise could occur well before 2050,” notes Jeremy Littell, a climate and fire researcher at the University of Washington, who created the projections with the U.S. Forest Service and other institutions.

Scientists in Canada have reached similar conclusions about their western region. The U.S. prediction applies to area burned during median fire years; extreme fire years would consume still more area. Unfortunately, as temperature goes up, Littell predicts, “what were historically big fire years may become more frequent.”

— Mark Fischetti

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