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Wildfires have increased in number and ferocity over recent years, and at present the US is battling large-scale blazes in Colorado and New Mexico. Now a team from the University of California, Berkeley has published a study which suggests that wildfires in the US and Europe are set to increase over the next 30 years as climate change “disrupts future fire patterns”.

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The study, which was conducted in collaboration with Texas Tech University, suggests that by 2100 almost all of North America and most of Europe will see a significant jump in the frequency of wildfires, mainly because of increasing temperature trends. In contrast, wildfires will decreases in equatorial regions due to increased rainfall.

The full study, which was published in the latest issue of Ecosphere used 16 different climate change models to generate “one of the most comprehensive projections to date” of how climate change might affect global fire patterns.

In a press statement, study lead author Max Moritz, fire specialist in UC Cooperative Extension said: “In the long run, we found what most fear — increasing fire activity across large parts of the planet. But the speed and extent to which some of these changes may happen is surprising.”

“These abrupt changes in fire patterns not only affect people’s livelihoods, but they add stress to native plants and animals that are already struggling to adapt to habitat loss.”

For their study, the team used over a decade of satellite-based fire records with historical climate observations and model simulations of future change. They then noted documented gradients between fire-prone and fire-free areas of Earth, and quantified the environmental factors responsible for these patterns. With their results, they then simulated how future climate change would drive future fire activity over the next century.

“Most of the previous wildfire projection studies focused on specific regions of the world, or relied upon only a handful of climate models,” said study co-author Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. “Our study is unique in that we build a forecast for fire based upon consistent projections across 16 different climate models combined with satellite data, which gives a global perspective on recent fire patterns and their relationship to climate.”

The great disagreement in the study was the projected model for the next few decades, with uncertainty across more than half the planet about whether fire activity will increase or decrease. However there is a general consensus that the western US will see, and should brace themselves for, more wildfires.

“What is clear is that the choices we are making as a society right now and in the next few decades will determine what Earth’s climate will look like over this century and beyond,” Mortiz added. “We need to learn how to coexist with fire.”

If your home is under risk from wildfires, read our article on 6 Steps To Protecting Your Home.

+ University of California, Berkeley

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