Climate: Longer droughts, warmer temps to fuel massive increase in European forest fires

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Smoke from forest fires in Greece streams out across the Mediterranean Sea. GIF composite image via NASA and Wikipedia.

Study projects 200 percent increase in burned areas by 2090 without mitigation and adaptation

Bob Berwyn

FRISCO —The American West isn’t alone in facing an increased wildfire threat. Global warming is expected to result in a sharp increase in European forest fires during the coming decades. By 2090, areas burned by fires could increase by as much as 200 percent, according to a new study published in the journal Regional Environmental Change.

Warmer temperatures and longer droughts will combine to fuel forest fire conditions in areas that are already susceptible, particularly the Mediterranean region, the researchers said, suggesting that better forest management, including preventive fires, could keep the increase to less than 50 percent.

Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece, where fires already burn between 500,000 and 1.8 million acres per year, will be most affected.

The study, led by scientists with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, was the first to examine adaptation to forest fire danger on a pan-European scale, focusing on prescribed burns and fire suppression as adaptation strategies.

“There is still a big debate on the effectiveness of prescribed burning as a forest fire management tool. This study shows that it can be a promising option to protect European forests from the impacts of climate change,” said IIASA researcher Nikolay Khabarov, who led the study.

Fire is a natural part of the ecology of many forests, but when fires get out of control they can burn huge areas and spread to neighboring homes and settlements. Prescribed burns help prevent these major fires by removing dead wood from forests.

The study also examined the potential of better firefighting to additionally help decrease burned areas. However, no study has yet managed to quantify the cost and benefit of such efforts at a continental scale.

“European forests are vital reservoirs for wildlife, for biodiversity, and for our own enjoyment and well-being,” says Khabarov, “We need to find ways to protect them.”

Prevention may be the best medicine of all, according to the study, since in Europe more than 95 percent of forest fires result from discarded cigarettes, campfires and even arson.

“In more populous areas, the chance of occurrence of forest fires rises dramatically,” said a study co-author Andrey Krasovskii. “We could prevent many of these fires simply by being more responsible.”

The study didn’t differentiate among various forest types, but focused on biomass —  litter and coarse woody debris —  which seems to be a reasonable overall proxy for fuel in the forest, Khabarov said via email.

 

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