Wildfires are threatening towns in Tennessee and other parts of the Southeast. Now is the time to talk about climate change. While we still can.
Climate Change And The Southeastern Fires
Satellite image of wildfires November 9, 2016Credit: NASA
November 29, 2016

Wildfires are threatening Gatlinburg, Tennessee and other parts of the Southeast. Unfortunately, the Southeast can look forward to more outbreaks of this nature, and climate change is a definite factor that could influence their increase.

The U.S. Forest Service did a study of conditions impacting the vulnerability of the Southeast to forest fire in a 2014 published report. Increasing temperatures can not only impact on humidity, they also allow for increased spread of invasive species. In addition, climate change can also lead to fewer prescribed burns, leading to yet more biodiversity degradation. Combined, both water and air quality will suffer.

From the study abstract:

Though there is considerable uncertainty in climate projections for the southeastern U.S., climate change will likely impact both prescribed fire and wildfire. In this review, we synthesize climate change-fire interactions, discuss the impacts of uncertainty in a human-dominated landscape, and illuminate how both climate change projections and their uncertainties might impact our ability to manage forests in the Southeast. We define the Southeast region as consisting of the Gulf Coastal Plain, Lower Atlantic Coastal Plain, Piedmont and southern Appalachians and associated subregions. This region has the greatest area burned by prescribed fire, the highest number of wildfires in the continental U.S. and contains globally significant hotspots of biodiversity, much of which is dependent on frequent fire. The use of prescribed fire as a management tool depends on a suite of weather and fuel conditions which are affected by climate. Over the next five decades, general circulation models (GCMs) consistently predict air temperature to increase by 1.5–3 C in the Southeast. Precipitation forecasts are more uncertain with respect to the mean; but, most models predict an increase in precipitation variability. Increases in the likelihood of severe droughts may increase wildfire occurrence while simultaneously limiting the implementation of prescribed burning by restricting the number of days within current prescription guidelines. While the Southeast has among the highest potential for C storage and sequestration, a reduction in C sequestration capacity due to increasing disturbances such as drought, insect infestations, hurricanes and fire, is possible. The potential for long-term shifts in forest composition from climate-altered fire regimes if coupled with an increased potential for wildfire occurrence could reduce quality and quantity of water released from forests at times when demand for high quality water will intensify for human use. Furthermore, any reduction in prescribed burning is likely to result in decreased biological diversity, particularly in the Coastal Plain, a global hotspot of biodiversity. Lastly, more future area burned by wildfire rather than prescribed fire has the potential to negatively influence regional air quality. Mitigating the negative effects of climate change-fire interactions would require actively exploiting favorable seasonal and inter-annual climate windows. Monitoring the type conversions of agricultural and fiber production forest will be critical for long-term projections of fire risk and watershed impacts of altered fire regimes.

The U.S. Forest Service also conducted research, highlighted in a report published in 2016, addressing both climate and societal impacts on Southeastern wildfires, in order to enable better decision making and better prepare people for what's to come.

Future changes in society and climate are expected to affect wildfire activity in the south-eastern United States. The objective of this research was to understand how changes in both climate and society may affect wildfire in the coming decades... Projections indicated, overall in the Southeast, that median annual area burned by lightning-ignited wildfire increases by 34%, human-ignited wildfire decreases by 6%, and total wildfire increases by4% by 2056–60 compared with 2016–20.

The Southeast is a major carbon-capture area of the country. Wildfires release the carbon into the air, further impacting on climate change. It's a cycle seeming without end.

How fast is the temperature rising in the Southeast? According to the EPA:

Climate change is causing increases in temperature across the Southeast. Since 1970, average annual temperatures in the region have increased by about 2°F, with the greatest warming occurring during the summer. Temperatures are projected to increase by 4°F to 8°F by the end of the century. There are also more predicted days over 95°F and fewer predicted freezing events.

If you find these reports to be useful, I suggest you download them now. Under Trump's administration, research on climate change and its impacts will be canceled, and these reports and others like them will be removed from the web.

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