The Impact of Climate Change on California’s Wildfires
Wildfires have recently become an increasingly concerning environmental issue in California as the summers become hotter and the fires burn longer, leading to lasting consequences on the environment and ecosystem.
A recent study published in the Science Advances journal by UCI’s Department of Earth System Science reveals that fires in the Sierra Nevada ecoregion, the geographic and ecological area in eastern California, have “increased considerably” over the past few decades.
Led by project specialist Aurora Gutierrez and co–author Dr. James Randerson, the study found that the reason for this spike in fires is the shift of vegetation composition and residential development — a result of 20th century fire suppression policies. Such changes led to “a new fire regime of infrequent, high-intensity fires” that arose during the mid-to-late 1900s. Combined with population growth and housing development that changes the pattern of land use, there has been an increase of “denser, more flammable vegetation with a more connected landscape for fire spread.”
Higher temperatures due to climate change — namely in hotter, drier summers — extend the duration of fire season, according to Gutierrez and Randerson. This in turn leads to heightened fire risk by drying fuels, increasing their flammability and spreading patterns.
Current climate change patterns further modify the structure and function of the Sierra Nevada’s ecosystem, and the evolution of the ecoregion in response to global warming is unclear.
Gutierrez and Randerson accurately predicted an upward trend in fire frequency by examining its relationship with temperature: the “likelihood of fire occurrence increases nonlinearly with daily temperature … a 1°C increase [yielding] a 19[%] to 22% increase in [wildfire] risk.”
Wildfires have recently become an increasingly concerning environmental issue in California as the summers become hotter and the fires burn longer, leading to lasting consequences on the environmen…
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