Effects of climate change on wildfires and future air quality in the western US.

  • In a Nutshell:
    The spread of wildfires is governed by weather conditions such as temperature and humidity and so may change in a changing climate. Previous studies attempting to forecast future wildfire activity have reported sometimes contradictory results.

    In the new study, atmospheric chemists Xu Yue, Loretta Mickley, and Jennifer Logan revisited these issues for the western United States during the 2000 to 2050 time period. They found that rising temperatures could increase the area burned in the West by 20-170% for the wildfire season, depending on the ecoregion. For the month of August alone in the Rockies, area burned could quadruple. The number of large fires in the West could increase by factors of 2 to 3, and the fire season could lengthen by 3 weeks. Finally, Yue and co-workers calculated that the smoke generated by wildfires could double in magnitude over some regions, with implications for visibility in parkland and for human health.

  • Sequoia & Kings National Park, California, 2005. (National Park Service/Parker Bevington.)
  • Harvard press release
  • Paper in press
    Yue, X., L.J. Mickley, J.A. Logan, and J.O. Kaplan, Ensemble projections of wildfire activity and carbonaceous aerosol concentrations over the western United States in the mid-21st century, Atmos. Env., 77, 767-780, 2013. (pdf, sup)

  • Graphics
    Captions and credits for graphics
    - Smoke billows over Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California, in 2004. (jpg)
    - Undergrowth burns at a campground. (jpg)
    - Fire burns at Sequoia & Kings National Park, California, in 2005. (jpg)
    - Percent increase in area burned by wildfires in the western United States, from the present-day to the 2050s. (jpg)
    - Percent increase in summertime organic carbon particles at the surface, from the present-day to the 2050s. (jpg)
  • Media response
    - Mickley interview with Mara Schiavocampo, MSNBC news, Sept. 2, 2013.
    - Climate change may feed even worse wildfires in U.S. West. Bloomberg briefs: Clean Energy & Carbon.
    - Wildfires expected to double by 2050 as West warms up. Live Science, NBC News Science.
    - US temperature rises likely to exacerbate Calfornia wildfires. Responding to Climate Change.
    - Future wildfires will be bigger, longer, and smokier. Salon.
    - Yosemite Rim Fire is taste of things to come. New Scientist.
    - Using the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions. National Geographic.
    - Warmer planet fuels more wildfires. Voice of America radio interview.
  • Funding
    The authors acknowledge support from EPA STAR (Science to Achieve Results), the National Institutes of Health, and NASA AQAST (Air Quality Applied Sciences Team). The paper has not been subjected to EPA, NIH, or NASA peer review, and therefore does not necessarily reflect the views of these agencies.
  • Back to Harvard Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group webpage.
    Back to Loretta Mickley's webpage.