SHOP PBS

Planet Earth

31
Dec

Significant Science of 2013: A Fiery Future

From Sydney to the Sierra Nevada, 2013 was a year of devastating wildfires. Particularly dry conditions in August fanned flames that threatened California’s massive sequoias, and just two months ago, bush fires burned across a 1,000-mile front in New South Wales, Australia. The Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona claimed the lives of 19 ace firefighters, while a string of a dozen wildfires kept the state of Colorado on edge for the entire summer.

rim-fire-ground
The Rim Fire burned through hundreds of thousands of acres of forest.

Wildfires are nothing new, but their rising intensity and increasing frequency has scientists worried. As we build deeper into the wilderness—placing our homes closer to where fires have historically raged—we’re also exposing ourselves to a calamitous side-effect of climate change.

Kate Galbraith, reporting for the New York Times:

Global studies of wildfire patterns are rare. But a paper published last year in the journal Ecosphere predicted that climate change would have an effect on wildfires that varies widely, especially in accordance with a given region’s precipitation patterns.

The paper — which focused on climate change but not other variables, like changing land management — projected that dry parts of the middle latitudes and Australia are likely to see more fires over the long term. The American West, already a tinderbox, will become more fire-prone. So, too, will high-latitude areas, the study found, partly because the carbon-rich peat soil there will burn under extreme weather conditions.

While the U.S. and Australia may be at the epicenter of this increased risk, other countries less frequently associated with wildfires, like Indonesia and Brazil, will also have to cope with more, and larger, conflagrations.

Wildfires not only threaten our homes, they also strip forested hillsides bare, raising the risk of massive flooding and landslides. While fires are natural, the intensity of 2013’s blazes haven’t been—instead of rejuvenating forests, they reduce them to ashes. Animals fleeing the flames have fewer places to run, too, as human development creeps closer.

Though wildfires have been one of the most significant science stories of 2013, climate change will all but ensure they stay in the news for years to come.