Yesterday I heard a report on NPR about how climate change is interacting with natural wild fires. I found an article about the paper, which was published originally in Ecosphere, which discusses some of the long term impacts of the climate change on wild fires. To do this, the group used 16 different climate models which ranged from very favorable emission numbers to catastrophic emissions numbers. This allowed for a wide range of different types of human activities and reflective climate changes in the area to be tested. This is important as it gives the article much more validity than if they had simply decided to use the worst case, or best case. Of course, there will be people that will argue that man has nothing to do with the climate and we aren’t impacting it. However, that’s sticking your head in the sand. We know we have impacted the climate in the past (hello Acid Rain) and have actually fixed it though changing our behavior (Acid Rain again).
Just using the climate models isn’t enough to really predict how and where wildfires will occur in the future. The wild fire itself had to be modeled as something where the conditions it could exist in can be tested. The group decided to model wild fire in the same way that movement of animals are modeled. Under certain circumstances it’s likely that an animal group will move into a specific type of environment. This is based on the amount of water, the amount of vegetation and the temperature. Wildfires need the exact same resources to exist. However instead of being lush and moist, the area needs to be dry, but with enough water to have had plant growth to a certain size.
By combing the two techniques the team was able to show that the West is going to be burning a lot more frequently than they are not. This of course creates a serious problem. People like to live in those areas. People don’t like to leave their houses when there are disasters, which means that we’re going to have more people burning, like the one in Colorado.
The authors, in the NPR interview, argued that this means we need to learn how to live with wildfire in the same way that we’ve learned how to live with floods and earthquakes. How can we do that though? It is likely to be more difficult than flooding because you can’t just build a mound of dirt as a ridge to prevent fire from moving further. With water you can do this with varying success. With fire, that mound of dirt will eventually grow grass on the mound and would just as easily catch fire. Even stone walls would be passable as a strong wind could blow embers over the wall or heat the wall to the point of material catching on the other side.
These are issues that we will have to resolve in the next 10-30 years. This seems like a long way off, but time has a habit of sneaking up on you and before you know it we’ll be having wildfires like we had in Texas last year and are having in Colorado and New Mexico now. I’m glad we’re aware of the extent of the risk now though.