Climate change and the eco-hydrology of fire: Will area burned increase in a warming western USA?
By Donald McKenzie and Jeremy Littell
Wildfire area is predicted to increase with global warming. Empirical statistical models and process-based simulations agree almost universally. The key relationship for this unanimity, observed at multiple spatial and temporal scales, is between drought and fire.
Predictive models often focus on ecosystems in which this relationship appears to be particularly strong, such as mesic and arid forests and shrublands with substantial biomass such as chaparral. We examine the drought–fire relationship, specifically the correlations between water-balance deficit and annual area burned, across the full gradient of deficit in the western USA, from temperate rainforest to desert.
In the middle of this gradient, conditional on vegetation (fuels), correlations are strong, but outside this range the equivalence hotter and drier equals more fire either breaks down or is contingent on other factors such as previous-year climate. This suggests that the regional drought–fire dynamic will not be stationary in future climate, nor will other more complex contingencies associated with the variation in fire extent.
Predictions of future wildfire area therefore need to consider not only vegetation changes, as some dynamic vegetation models now do, but also potential changes in the drought–fire dynamic that will ensue in a warming climate.
US Geological Survey (ret.)