The Dangerous Connection Between Climate Change and Forest Fires

Wildfires are once again raging across the western United States, causing utter destruction to thousands of acres in California, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico and Utah. Across the pond, Europe is also suffering its deadliest fires in more than a century. Countries you don’t usually associate with wildfire — Greece, Sweden, Finland — are all battling devastating fires of their own.

I’ve heard many people say, “Oh, it’s just a part of summer,” but according to climate scientists, these fires are being made worse — much worse — by human-caused climate change. Extreme weather is now normal.

“We’re observing an expansion of the areas that are at risk, with fires occurring in countries where wildfires were not so common in the past,” says Jesús San-Miguel, a researcher at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.

As the climate warms and precipitation levels shift, hot, dry conditions only increase the likelihood that wildfires will be more frequent, more intense and more long-burning, particularly in the western USA. In fact, between 1986 and 2003, wildfires have occurred nearly four times as often, lasted almost five times as long and burned more than six times the land area when compared to the period just prior, between 1970 and 1986. Yikes.

Here’s the gist of how rising temperatures affect the frequency of and damage done by wildfires:

When warm weather arrives earlier than usual, it leads to premature snow melt in the springtime.

Many places are seeing their snow pack melt up to four weeks earlier than it used to, just 50 years ago. At the same time, these warmer temperatures creep later and later into the fall, resulting in less snow to begin with.

Premature snow melt (combined with enhanced evaporation) causes dry areas to become dryer.

Looking at just the United States here for a second, dryer states like Utah and California become even dryer in the face of climate change. Below-average rainfall, which is the result of enhanced evaporation due to climate change, naturally increases the probability and duration of a fire.

Extra warm, extra dry climate conditions make way for destructive insects like pine beetles to wreak havoc on forests.

Mountain pine beetles and similar pests are huge fans of hot, dry weather. As seasons that used to be commonly wet and cool become wetter and hotter, these destructive insects increase in population, spreading quickly throughout forests. These beetles kill trees and brush, which then dry out, making them as easy to ignite as a match.

All this combined is a recipe for disaster when it comes to forest fires.

Altogether, the changes in the environment above are a recipe for disaster when it comes to wildfires. In truth, what used to be a vibrant forest can quickly turn into a massive tinderbox, ready to ignite at any moment.

This is why it’s so, so important that we break the cycle. The best thing we can do is halt rising temperatures, burning less fossil fuels and taking steps toward using clean energy sources as much as possible. Will you join us in the fight?

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59 comments

Lesa D
Lesa D8 days ago

thank you Lauren...

gee... if we had only "raked the floor"... >insert EYE ROLL here

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Peggy B
Peggy B26 days ago

Just ask Trump. It's not climate change its forest mismanagement.

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Carole R
Carole R27 days ago

These fires are frightening. I feel so badly foir all those affected.

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Thomas M
Past Member about a month ago

thank you

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Peggy B
Peggy B1 months ago

TYFS

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Carolina G
Carolina Gallo2 months ago

Thank you for raising awareness. But just a little note: as per its Mediterranean nature, Greece does have fires every year (average ca. 1500 during fire season), and it's one of the EU countries with longest time series recording fires. I don't think it should be classified as "Countries you don’t usually associate with wildfire "

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson2 months ago

Thank you.

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Elizabeth M
Past Member 2 months ago

many thanks noted.

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Janis K
Janis K2 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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danii p
danii p2 months ago

thank you

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