MERCED, Calif. An increase in wildfires due to climate change could rapidly and profoundly alter the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, according to a new study authored by environmental engineering and geography Professor Anthony Westerling of the University of California, Merced.
The study by Westerling and his colleagues which will be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the expected rising temperatures caused by climate change could increase the frequency of large wildfires in Yellowstone to an unprecedented level.
The projected increase in fires would likely cause a major shift in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, with fewer dense forests and more open woodland, grass and shrub vegetation. The change could happen by 2050, Westerling posits, with forests becoming younger, the mix of tree species changing and some forests failing to regenerate after repeated fires. This would affect the region's wildlife, hydrology, carbon storage and aesthetics.
"What surprised us about our results was the speed and scale of the projected changes in fire in Greater Yellowstone," Westerling said. "We expected fire to increase with increased temperatures, but we did not expect it to increase so much or so quickly. We were also surprised by how consistent the changes were across different climate projections."
For their study, the researchers compiled climate data from 1972 to 1999 and examined it in relation to the occurrence and size of large wildfires in the northern Rocky Mountains over the same time period. Using the resulting statistical patterns, Westerling and his coauthors projected how climate change would affect Greater Yellowstone fires through the year 2099.
"Large, severe fires are normal for this ecosystem. It has burned this way about every 100 to 300 years, for thousands of years," said coauthor Monica Turner, the Eugene P. Odum Professor of Ecology a
|Contact: James Leonard|
University of California - Merced