Extreme droughts that have become a common feature due to climate changes have caused unprecedented changes in the western parts of the US. Rocky Mountain fires that devastated areas higher up that were previously untouched are more frequent and intense than in any period in the last 2,000 years.
Published in the National Academy of Sciences, the study revealed that Rocky Mountain fires and also fires in other forests have crept up to higher elevations in the past several decades. Areas considered too wet to burn previously have been scorched. Wildfires advance uphill with each passing year and have brought a staggering 11% of all forests in the western US at risk.
Drought conditions and rapid climate changes in the western parts of the US have dried out the subalpine forests making them particularly vulnerable to forest fires. In the past three and a half decades, the rise in temperatures has extended fire-prone territories by an additional 81,500 square kilometers of high-elevation forests.
Rocky Mountain Fires Set To Turn Worse
Philip Higuera, professor of fire ecology at the Montana University said that post-2020, we are in unfamiliar territory. More areas and communities are being directly affected by wildfires. And studies have suggested that blazes like the Rocky Mountain fires are only going to get worse.
This year is set to be just as worse as the worsening drought situation has set records scientists had only expected in August.
Higuera and colleagues analyzed previous wildfires in an attempt to understand the similarities and differences with present fires raging across the region.
They went through historical records and analyzed charcoal collected from lakes in the subalpine and other high-altitude forests to understand the present fires.
The study threw up disturbing figures. Higuera’s team discovered that the 2020 wildfires alone accounted for nearly three-fourths of the entire area that was destroyed by fires since 1984. The current speed of burning is also much higher at 22% more than the extreme average over the past 2,000 years.
The researchers found this study particularly relevant as normally, subalpine forests similar to this burn at a much lower rate. It seems that the seasons are shifting. Jennifer Marlon from the Yale environmental schools said that the Rocky Mountain fires and other similar wildfires have pointed to the fact that drought and extremely hot conditions make it easier for wildfires to rage uncontrollably. This points to the distinctive characteristics of global warming.
Higuera says that it has become important for us to know how to live with fires so that they do not become unmanageable and harm communities.