Climate Change Will Double Area Burned In U.S. Wildfires By 2050, Report Warns

Wildfires in the U.S. will be at least twice as destructive by 2050, burning around 20 million acres nationwide each year, according to a federal report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service, who authored the report, found regions such as western Colorado — which already experienced its most destructive wildfire in history last summer — will face an even greater risk fire risk: those regions are expected to face up to a five-fold increase in acres burned by 2050.

The report’s findings are in line with previous studies on climate change’s relation to fire risk: a 2012 study found that wildfire burn season is two and a half months longer than it was 40 years ago, and that for every one degree Celsius temperature increase the earth experiences, the area burned in the western U.S. could quadruple. The findings are also in line with the observed impacts climate change is having on wildfires. Wildfires in 2012 burned a record 9.2 million acres in the U.S., and record-breaking heat and dry weather in Australia provided ideal conditions for at least 90 fires that raged through the country this January.

The report also outlines the other effects climate change will have on the forests of the U.S. The Rocky Mountain forests are expected to become hotter and drier as the planet warms, conditions that in addition to wildfires will lead to an increase in infestations of insects such as the bark beetle, which has already destroyed tens of millions of acres of U.S. forests. One species, the mountain pine beetle, has already killed 70,000 square miles of trees — area the size of Washington state. As winters become milder, weather becomes drier and higher elevations become warmer, bark beetles are able to thrive and extend their ranges northward. An increase in some species of bark beetle can actually increase the risk of forest fires in areas affected by the beetle — the study notes an outbreak of the mountain pine bark beetle, which attacks and kills live trees, created a “perfect storm” in 2006 in Washington, where affected lodgepole pines burned “with exceptionally high intensity.”

David Peterson, a U.S. Forest Service biologist who co-authored the report, told the Denver Post that the destruction the bark beetles have inflicted upon western forests in recent years has been unprecedented:

“We’re getting into extreme events that seem to be having more and more effects across broader landscapes.”

The report also predicts an increase of invasive plants and animals, as well as flooding and erosion due to increased rainfall, higher rain to snow ratios and more burned areas. It notes that U.S. forests offset 13 percent of the country’s carbon emissions, and as trees killed by insects and fire decompose, they’ll emit carbon themselves. Because of the sweeping impacts, the report, which is being finalized for the White House and Congress, calls on forest managers to make “climate-smart” practices, such as thinning fire-vulnerable forests, a priority.

21 Responses to Climate Change Will Double Area Burned In U.S. Wildfires By 2050, Report Warns

  1. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s good, relatively, to see 2050 used as the time-horizon rather than the denialist, put it out of mind, idiocy of 2100. And, I’ll actually predict that this horrible inevitability will arrive considerably earlier than 2050.

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    And I’ll predict that you are going to be right. Generally, all these studies should be working on 2020-2025 that people have a real chance of envisioning. They would become more powerful immediately. Even better, they should start using systems maths, ME

  3. John Jones says:

    Double? More like 10 times current rates of burn.

    Ground moisture is falling rapidly. Trees are dying from insects, disease, pollution and heat stress.

    As a former USDA Forest Service employee, I can guarantee you that the report being issued is dramatically watered down to avoid a public panic. Not the first time they’ve done this either.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    For a baseline, the National Atlas has the US with 747 million acres of forest in the lower 48 states, of which 363 million acres are in western forests that have been more vulnerable to fire up to this point.

    Losing 9 million acres to fire a year now and creeping up to 20 million acres a year over the next 37 years, is a very big dent in the total acreage of mature trees, eastern and western.

    Link to National Atlas page:

  5. Josh says:

    Our hubris knows no bounds. Oh well, when the peeps out west turn into crispy-critters; I’ll send them bootstraps. lol.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Global warming is the big deal, not so much the symptom of wildfire. Some Western forests are under burned, due to fire suppression policies. Conifers are adapted to fires out West.

    The bigger problem is logging, which accounts for a big chunk of the world’s emissions, between 15-25% by most estimates. Logging dries out the site, removes biomass, employs herbicides, and replants sterile plantations.

    Counterintuitive fact: After logging, 15% of the site carbon remains, and after a fire, even a hot one, 85% of the site carbon remains, in the form of unburned boles, roots, surviving individuals and species, and charcoal soil amendments. This is the opposite of intuition and public opinions. Here’s a good one on the forest carbon cycle:

  7. ME seconds it and I third it.

    The poopoo is already thumping the propeller, and 2050 is almost four decades away. The big polar ice melt came 75 years ahead of schedule. We had record fires last summer — along with record heat waves, droughts, sea-level rise and storms.

    I’d surprised if there are any forests left to burn by 2050 if we don’t get our acts together.

  8. Yes Mike, but I think you’re overlooking something.

    Under global warming conditions, the forests will not grow back as they have in the past. Higher temperatures, less water and migrant pest species from lower latitudes or altitudes will slow if not stop regrowth after areas are burned.

    Of course you’re right that uncontrolled logging is worse than fire, at least at this point. And slash and burn agriculture in developing countries is the worst of both worlds.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And we know that, during the Australian ‘Millenium’ drought, which is now returning, ‘hazard reduction’ fires were often too dangerous to undertake, even in winter, because of the dryness of the bush. Of course, the Right, as they always do, lied through their teeth about this when the February 2009 megafire disaster took off 173 people in the most hideous manner, falsely blaming greens (what does the Bible say about ‘bearing false witness’?) for the fire intensity, being unprepared, as climate destabilisation denialists, to even comprehend, let alone accept, the reality of the climate and the weather. They were egged on by the Rightwing MSM, one august ‘organ’ (now about to go bust, perhaps as a sign of Divine retribution) even publishing a hideous diatribe from one of its hatemongers (an alumnus of the Murdoch excrescence)calling for ‘Greenies’ to be lynched.

  10. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Mike – ” . . . after a fire, even a hot one, 85% of the site carbon remains, in the form of unburned boles, roots, surviving individuals and species, and charcoal soil amendments.”

    There’s a time frame factor you’re missing here. After a fire the dead boles and roots will rot, largely anaerobocally, giving a CH4 output with a CO2e value many times the combustion or aerobic decay equivalent.



  11. Joan Savage says:

    I agree! Well said!

    In further support of that, fire-adapted ecosystems have components such as soil fungi that retain nutrients on site and begin the rebuilding.

    Cutting a forest takes not only a massive amount of carbon off-site, it takes away micro-nutrients, and it bares the soil to heat and erosion, leaving the system poorer and less able to rebuild.

  12. Paul Klinkman says:

    I’ll add one more vote for “wow, is this report conservative!”

    Start with the loss of water. Wind storms are getting worse, and winds drive fires. Severe winds also fell more trees. With crazy climate, the trees are leafing earlier and are still getting their leaves singed by late frosts, or early ice storms are breaking off branches with leaves. The bugs are adapting to the new climates faster than trees and are eating up the trees one billion by one billion tree deaths, leaving all that vertical kindling for megafires. Finally, the cold fronts have more energy which means more lightning, which starts more fires.

    All of this said, thousands of drone tankers will someday help put the fires out early. Of course if our human civilization had the planetary wealth for an armada of drone tankers, then it would have the planetary wealth to fight catastrophic climate change in the first place.

  13. Paul Klinkman says:

    Let’s be rigorous. Let’s trace the carbon, both from logging and after cool or hot fires. Somebody must have tried this as a science project.

    If the carbon is logged out of the forest, how much of the carbon goes into buildings? Is the slash burned for fuel or burned in bonfires just to get rid of the slash?

    When the wooden buildings are torn down, how much of the carbon winds up in a landfill, how much wood is recycled into other buildings, how much is thrown on some pile until it rots into methane and CO2, and how much is burned? Now, what parts of this long cycle could be cheaply tightened up?

    Now for the fire carbon cycle: If a hot fire leaves 85% of the carbon, in 100 years how much of that carbon is still sitting there as charred boles on the forest floor? What happened to the carbon?

    Also, what is the long-term effect of soot particles from that hot fire on the Greenland ice sheet?

  14. Mike Roddy says:

    Interesting, John. You probably also know that tree mortality (not counting logging) has tripled since 1970 in the US.

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    Answers to this are in the peer reviewed literature, Paul. I suggest you study the link I posted above and go to the sources at the end.

    IPCC doesn’t credit wood products for carbon sequestration, since they are merely replacing wood products that have decayed, doing nothing for our carbon budget. The 15% figure is accepted by forest carbon scientists- google the Ann Ingerson Wilderness Society analysis, or track down Mark Harmon’s work in the forestry literature.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You left out tropospheric ozone.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And around the planet. The struts of the web of life are fraying, one by one.

  18. Paul Klinkman says:

    Worse! I forgot the heat!

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Then there are the repeated fires, far more frequent and intense than in the recent past few millennia (at least) that will destroy eco-systems.

  20. mike rich says:

    This all can be reduced to the fact that there are too many humans and not enough air,water and wildlife to sustain them.Today I read that Florida manatees are on the brink and stingrays are being eaten to near extinction in a hideous, war torn and hotter world.That is just recently.Please stop breeding…we need no more new humans.

  21. David Smith says:

    Are there any figures for wildfires worldwide in hectares destroyed over the past 50 years?