A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that high elevation forests in Colorado and Southern Wyoming are experiencing bigger, more frequent and more severe wildfires than at any point in the past 2,000 years. According to the study, climate change has led to decreased snowfall and longer summers, triggering more wildfires.
Bryan Shuman, a geology professor at the University of Wyoming and co-author of the paper, explained that the reduction in snowfall as compared to previous years is to blame. Further, he said that the hotter summers are converting trees into dry wood, which offers fuel for wildfires.
“Snowfall in our high-elevation forests is lower now than in past decades, and summers are hotter. The changes convert trees into dry fuel, primed and ready to burn,” Shuman said. “With less snow now, the fire season lasts longer than before. When areas burn, the fires are bigger. They can burn longer.”
In their study, researchers used traces of charcoal found in sediments from nearby lakes to compare the severity and extent of previous fires to modern ones. They determined that recent fires are more intense and cause more extensive damage than at any point in history.
Wildfires have claimed nearly twice the forest area on average since the year 2000 as compared to the previous 2,000 years, according to the study. The 2020 wildfires were the most severe, claiming even the most heavily managed forests. In 2020 alone, wildfires burned approximately 660,000 acres of forests in the Rocky Mountains. This is just shy of the total 840,000 acres that were burned between 1984 to 2019.
“The results indicate that, if fires continue to burn as often as they do now, every forest in the region could be burned by the beginning of the next century,” Shuman said. “Some forests may never grow back.”
Due to such concerns, the researchers are calling for more critical measures that can help protect forests from wildfires even as the world grapples to reverse global warming and climate change at large.
Image via Kyle Miller, Wyoming Hotshots, USFS