Why are there bigger wildfires in the American West?

June 7, 2012 | 2:36 pm | , Solutions Analyst

© 2010 Flickr/ Lou Angeli Digital cc by nc sa 2.0

The Whitewater-Baldy fire in Gila National Forest, New Mexico is officially the largest in the state’s history. The fire has burned 377 square miles and less than 20 percent of it has been contained. It breaks the record for the largest wildfire in the state set by the Las Conchas wildfire, way back in … 2011! Oh, and the largest wildfire in Arizona happened last year too.

So why do wildfires in the American West keep getting bigger?

Both NASA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have predicted that wildfires are likely to be more frequent and widespread because of climate change. That happens for two reasons: Higher temperatures, and also a drier climate.

The IPCC report emphasized that this is a particular threat in North America, and especially the Western U.S., where the amount of land destroyed wildfires in 1987-2003 was almost 7 times larger than from 1970-1986. The most recent IPCC report on extreme weather also warned that conditions resulting in wildfires are going to increase with climate change.

The U.S. Drought Monitor’s data showed that at one point this spring, nearly 61% of the lower 48 U.S. states were suffering dry conditions. NOAA reported that April 2012 (the latest for which they have complete data) was the third warmest on record and that the U.S. Southwest showed conditions of exceptional drought.

While reporting on the New Mexico fire, only a handful of media reports have mentioned the increased risk of wildfires in a warmer world. A lot of reporters don’t seem to be connecting the dots. This is a big omission, because instead of recognizing a growing risk and taking steps to combat it, we’re turning a blind eye toward a dangerous trend.

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