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Joseph L. Crockett and A. Leroy Westerling

Abstract

Extensive drought in the western United States (WUS) during the twenty-first century and associated wildfire and tree mortality incidence has highlighted the potential for greater area of severity within widespread droughts. To place recent WUS droughts into a historical context, the authors analyzed gridded daily climate (temperature, precipitation, and climatic water deficit) data to identify and characterize the spatiotemporal evolution of the largest WUS droughts of the last 100 years, with an emphasis on severe cores within drought extents. Cores of droughts during the last 15 years (2000–02 and 2012–14) covered a greater area than in earlier droughts, driven by greater temperature and precipitation extremes. Comparing fire extent and severity before, during, and after drought events using the monitoring trends in burn severity dataset (1984–2014), the authors found fire size and high-severity burn extent were greater during droughts than before or after. Similarly, recent Sierra Nevada forest mortality was greatest in cores immediately after the drought. Climate simulations anticipate greater extremes in temperature and precipitation in a warming world; droughts and related impacts of the last 15 years may presage the effects of these extremes.

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A. L. Westerling, A. Gershunov, T. J. Brown, D. R. Cayan, and M. D. Dettinger

A 21-yr gridded monthly fire-starts and acres-burned dataset from U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs fire reports recreates the seasonality and interannual variability of wild fire in the western United States. Despite pervasive human influence in western fire regimes, it is striking how strongly these data reveal a fire season responding to variations in climate. Correlating anomalous wildfire frequency and extent with the Palmer Drought Severity Index illustrates the importance of prior and accumulated precipitation anomalies for future wildfire season severity. This link to antecedent seasons' moisture conditions varies widely with differences in predominant fuel type. Furthermore, these data demonstrate that the relationship between wildfire season severity and observed moisture anomalies from antecedent seasons is strong enough to forecast fire season severity at lead times of one season to a year in advance.

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