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Will Future Climate Favor More Erratic Wildfires in the Western United States?

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  • 1 Department of Geography, and Center for Global Change and Earth Observations, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
  • | 2 Department of Geography, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
  • | 3 Department of Geography, and Center for Global Change and Earth Observations, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
  • | 4 Northern Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, East Lansing, Michigan
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Abstract

Wildfires that occurred over the western United States during August 2012 were fewer in number but larger in size when compared with all other Augusts in the twenty-first century. This unique characteristic, along with the tremendous property damage and potential loss of life that occur with large wildfires with erratic behavior, raised the question of whether future climate will favor rapid wildfire growth so that similar wildfire activity may become more frequent as climate changes. This study addresses this question by examining differences in the climatological distribution of the Haines index (HI) between the current and projected future climate over the western United States. The HI, ranging from 2 to 6, was designed to characterize dry, unstable air in the lower atmosphere that may contribute to erratic or extreme fire behavior. A shift in HI distribution from low values (2 and 3) to higher values (5 and 6) would indicate an increased risk for rapid wildfire growth and spread. Distributions of Haines index are calculated from simulations of current (1971–2000) and future (2041–70) climate using multiple regional climate models in the North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program. Despite some differences among the projections, the simulations indicate that there may be not only more days but also more consecutive days with HI ≥ 5 during August in the future. This result suggests that future atmospheric environments will be more conducive to erratic wildfires in the mountainous regions of the western United States.

Corresponding author address: Lifeng Luo, Dept. of Geography, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824. E-mail: lluo@msu.edu

Abstract

Wildfires that occurred over the western United States during August 2012 were fewer in number but larger in size when compared with all other Augusts in the twenty-first century. This unique characteristic, along with the tremendous property damage and potential loss of life that occur with large wildfires with erratic behavior, raised the question of whether future climate will favor rapid wildfire growth so that similar wildfire activity may become more frequent as climate changes. This study addresses this question by examining differences in the climatological distribution of the Haines index (HI) between the current and projected future climate over the western United States. The HI, ranging from 2 to 6, was designed to characterize dry, unstable air in the lower atmosphere that may contribute to erratic or extreme fire behavior. A shift in HI distribution from low values (2 and 3) to higher values (5 and 6) would indicate an increased risk for rapid wildfire growth and spread. Distributions of Haines index are calculated from simulations of current (1971–2000) and future (2041–70) climate using multiple regional climate models in the North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program. Despite some differences among the projections, the simulations indicate that there may be not only more days but also more consecutive days with HI ≥ 5 during August in the future. This result suggests that future atmospheric environments will be more conducive to erratic wildfires in the mountainous regions of the western United States.

Corresponding author address: Lifeng Luo, Dept. of Geography, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824. E-mail: lluo@msu.edu
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