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The area burned by wildfires each year across the Western United States has increased by more than 300 percent over the past three decades, and much of this increase is due to human-caused warming. Warmer air holds more moisture, and the thirsty air sucks this from plants, trees, and soil, leaving forest vegetation and ground debris drier and easier to ignite. Future climate change, accompanied by warming temperatures and increased aridity, is expected to continue this trend, and will likely exacerbate and intensify wildfires in areas where fuel is abundant.
Park Williams, a Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory associate research professor and a 2016 Center for Climate and Life Fellow, studies climatology, drought, and wildfires. He has received a $641,000 grant from the Zegar Family Foundation that he'll use to advance understanding of the past and future behavior of wildfires. His goal is to create a tool to help scientists understand why wildfires in Western U.S. states have changed over the last century, ways they may evolve in the future, and how humans can most effectively respond to them.
Williams - Observations - Tens - Thousands - Fires
Williams will compile observations of tens of thousands of fires over the last 30 to 40 years and where they burned across the Western U.S. He'll relate these to climate data sets of where people live, and what vegetation grows where. The end product will be a computer program that can project how these variables affect the probability of large fires and that will attempt to simulate how vegetation responds to fire.
"This is important because after a fire there's less vegetation than there was before," said Williams. "This means that the probability of a subsequent fire goes down for a while. And the fire probability won't be high again until vegetation is dense in that area again. Modeling that process is very difficult but it's...
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