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A Hotter World Won't Automatically be a More Fiery World

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With 2012 on track to be the worst year on record for wildfires in the U.S.—although Isaac’s heavy rains may blunt some of the drought-based danger in some locales—a nuanced view of climate change and fire seems almost out of place.

It’s a pretty simple equation, after all: a hotter world is certainly got to be a more fiery world. Heck, even the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the folks behind the Doomsday Clock, cited that nexus when they included less thermonuclear concerns in their timekeeping. As they wrote five years ago, “Coral reefs will disappear, forest fires will be more intense and more frequent, and heat waves and storms more damaging."

So along comes Max Moritz, a thoughtful fire ecologist (and a good acquaintance of mine and of this site). Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, he says, “Based on what we know about the diversity of natural 'fire regimes'—the range of fire sizes, frequencies, intensities, and seasons—it is safe to say that a warmer planet will not always mean more fires."

No apologist for climate-change deniers, Moritz explains that, well, it’s complicated. Any postage-stamp message will probably be flawed. For example, wildfires need fuel, and climate change will affect precipitation, which affects vegetation, which provides fuel. And even that’s simplified: “many details are important but remain unknown: for example, how winds may change in the future, where invasive plants will affect fire probabilities, and how people may alter land use and ignition patterns.” Plus, as they say in real estate, location matters, and a few places will actually see fewer fires.

And if that weren’t enough variables, fire itself will change habitats and release greenhouse gases.

Moritz’s advice on climate and fires is pretty much postage-stamp sized: adapt.

“Climate adaptation will require a shift in perspective toward viewing fires as inevitable natural events,” he writes. “That's not to say that fire sizes, frequencies, intensities, and seasonalities are unpredictable and completely beyond human control.” Some strategies he addresses here, and others by a global working group on fire whose conclusions I touched on here.

As another fire ecologist, Jennifer Balch, noted in that story about fires in the Amazon (where changing climate patterns and poor land management are making fires worse): “So we get larger fires, more frequent fires, and fires where we haven’t usually seen them. It’s not fire so much that we have to manage, it’s change. Change is what we have to manage.”