Climate change contributed to wildfires in the West, Academies study says

New research published in the proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences works to quantify the relationship between climate change and recent record-breaking wildfire seasons.

“Increased forest fire activity across the western United States in recent decades has contributed to widespread forest mortality, carbon emissions, periods of degraded air quality, and substantial fire suppression expenditures,” according to the study.

“Although numerous factors aided the recent rise in fire activity, observed warming and drying have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity, fostering a more favorable fire environment across forested systems,” according to the NAS research.

The study found that anthropogenic climate change was responsible for doubling the amount of land area burned in the Western United States from 1984 to 2015.

Rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns due to climate change increase the rate at which plant cells lose moisture, fostering environmental conditions conducive for wildfires.

The authors modeled the relationship between temperature and fuel dryness and found all eight simulations “correlate well with fire.” Park Williams, a bio-climatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, stated the strongest relationship between changing environmental variables and the growing frequency of wildfires was fuel aridity. Williams said, “Every few years we’re kind of entering a new epoch, where the potential for new fires is quite a bit bigger than it was a few years back.”

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at