Area Burned By U.S. Wildfires Expected to Double by 2050

Warmer and drier conditions in coming decades will likely cause the burned area from wildfires in the U.S. to double in size by 2050, according to new research based on satellite observations and computer modeling experiments.

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    The original version of this article, by , appeared on Climate Central.

    Warmer and drier conditions in coming decades will likely cause the burned area from wildfires in the U.S. to double in size by 2050, according to new research based on satellite observations and computer modeling experiments. The research, which was first presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on Dec. 4, provides insight into both recent wildfire trends and the sharp increase in dryness — and therefore wildfire susceptibility — in certain regions of the country.

    A visualization of cumulative fires from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, 2012, detected by the MODIS instrument on board the Terra and Aqua satellites. Bright yellow shows areas that are more intense and have a larger area that is actively burning, flaming and/or smoldering. Credit: NASA.

    The 2012 U.S. wildfire season was one of the worst on record, with massive fires affectingColorado and New Mexico, in particular. The new research suggests that high wildfire years, such as 2012, would likely occur 2-to-4  times per decade by 2050, rather than once per decade as they do now.

    In addition, the research shows that the midsection of the country — from Texas to North Dakota — is likely to become drier as the climate continues to warm in response to manmade emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. That drying will significantly increase the amount of burned area in this zone, said Doug Morton of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Morton said other regions of the country, including the West, will likely see a continued increase in burned area as well.

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    The Whitewater-Baldy Complex wildfire in Gila National Forest, New Mexico, as it burned on June 6th, 2012. Scientists calculate that high fire years like 2012 are likely occur two to four times per decade by mid-century, instead of once per decade under current climate conditions. Credit: Kari Greer/USFS Gila National Forest.