The Rockies’ high-elevation forests are burning faster than they have in the last 2,000 years.

26th January, 2022.      //   Climate Change  // 
Canyon Lakes Ranger RD shared photos from one of their firefighters of the Cameron Peak fire taken on August 13.

Canyon Lakes Ranger RD shared photos from one of their firefighters of the Cameron Peak fire taken on August 13.

New research finds that high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountains are burning more now than at any time in the last 2,000 years as a result of excessive dryness caused by climate change.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, concluded that fire activity in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming’s subalpine forests has been unprecedented in the last few millennia, indicating that the West’s wildfires are becoming more severe and widespread as a result of the climate crisis.

According to scientists, rising temperatures and protracted dryness in the West will worsen and increase wildfire activity for at least several decades. Last year’s wildfire season was a game changer, according to Philip Higuera, the study’s lead author and a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana.
“It’s apparent we’re in new ground beyond 2020,” Higuera added. “These wildfires have a direct or indirect harmful impact on people, and climate projections show that this tendency will only get worse.”
According to Higuera, the present drought will lay the ground for another devastating fire season in 2021, especially in California, where drought conditions and dead vegetation are already shattering records that scientists didn’t expect until August, according to the California Department of Forestry.

Higuera and his colleagues were compelled by the 2020 wildfire season to look at historical fire records to see how fire behavior in the 21st century differs from the past. They used charcoal found in lake sediments around subalpine forests — or high-elevation forests — to examine how often fires have happened in the area on average during the last two millennia, in addition to historical records.

Higuera’s team found that last year’s wildfires accounted for 72 percent of the total charred area in the subalpine forests since 1984. They also found the current rate of burning is 22 percent higher than the maximum average rate over the past 2,000 years — a period of time the temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was actually slightly higher than it was during the 20th century.
The study’s authors say the increase is a particularly significant climate impact, since subalpine forests typically burn less frequently than lower elevation forests.
Higuera called the results “sobering.”
“Understanding how ecosystems have changed in the past is one of our best ways to learn more about how our forests change as climate changes,” Higuera said. “Studying the past is so important because it really helps highlight the degree to which we are changing the landscapes that we live in now.”
Jennifer Marlon, a climate scientist at the Yale School of the Environment who was not involved with the study, said these results suggest the seasons are shifting.
“When you get extreme heat and drought together, that’s a recipe for really severe wildfires,” Marlon told the press. “The fingerprints of global warming are all over this kind of fire behavior.”
Concerningly, Higuera said, what has worked to prevent wildfires at low elevations — controlled burns — is not an easy solution for subalpine forests.
“In lower elevation forests, it’s an easier proposition to say we need to return prescribed fire to these forests to help get them back to conditions similar to how they were before fire suppression,” Higuera said. “It’s not as feasible in high elevation forests.”

In addition, he said, “Fire managers are faced with difficult options, such as whether to change the way fires occur in these systems or tolerate these high-severity flames, which is difficult when they are close to human areas.”
Forests are essential for dealing with the worst effects of climate change. They not only help to preserve biodiversity, but they also help to absorb and store carbon dioxide from human activity. However, as wildfires become more frequent, the carbon stored in these forests is being released back into the environment, which is exacerbated by poor air quality.

Unless climate change is handled, scientists believe that forest ecosystems, particularly the subalpine in the Rocky Mountains, may soon hit a tipping point. But, according to Higuera, the solution isn’t to eradicate fire from forest management systems because it’s always been a component of the forest’s life cycle.
“We know that fire is an important component on these landscapes,” he added, “and that’s one of the challenges of living in the West.” A lot of the things we’ve come to expect, such as species composition, would be lost if we remove it, so the task for us is to learn how to live with fire in ways that don’t turn into human disasters.”

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