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Climate and Wildfires in the 21st Century

September 2014 King Fire in California. This natural-color satellite image was collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite on September 24, 2014. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS's thermal bands, are outlined in red.NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team.

September 2014 King Fire in California. This natural-color satellite image was collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite on September 24, 2014. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS’s thermal bands, are outlined in red.NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team.

If you live west of the Mississippi, then you are no stranger to living with the threat of wildfires. Generally speaking, the western half of the country is more fire prone, compared to the more industrialized East, with large tracts of forest and grasslands on state and federal lands–national forests, state and national parks, and other conservation and use areas. This is not to say that wildfires do not happen east of the Mississippi, because they do, but fires for agriculture and forest management are more common than wildfires in these states.

There is a lot of variability with the number of fires and acreage burned from year to year.  Fire, by its nature, reflects a complex interaction between climate, ignitions, and fuels–the amount of dry vegetation available to carry the fire. According to the National Interagency Fire Center,  141,900 wildland fires burned 18 million acres in the United States in 2011 and 2012. Although 2013 might be considered a ‘quieter’ year,’ with 47,759 wildfires and 4.3 million acres burned, drought conditions across the Western states (especially California) help to fuel large fires.  These new ‘megafires’ seem to be an increasing certainty for western states during fire season.

So what does this mean for wildland fire activity in the 21st century?

Satellite data provide important clues to the future of US fire activity.  NASA satellites detect actively burning fires, providing key information to resource managers in the US and across the globe.  In a sense, it’s like having the world’s tallest fire tower.  Over time, NASA data on active fires and burned areas help to identify trends–increases and decreases in burned areas based on changes in climate, land use, and fire management.

NASA’s Fire and Smoke pages bring together satellite/aircraft data and analysis that can help firefighters, as well as provide tools for scientists, researchers, and the public to learn about the effects and impacts of fire. NASA scientist Douglas Morton works at the Goddard Space Flight Center as part of the Earth Science Division team of scientists and engineers that develop, operate, and analyze data from NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites.  Morton’s research focuses on how fires contribute to global change, with a specific emphasis on the roles of land use and climate for changes in fire activity around the globe. He is also part of the research team for Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED), which is “an effort to combine multiple sources of satellite data to better understand fire activity, greenhouse gas emissions from fires, and changes in savanna and tropical forest ecosystems following fire events.”

wildfiresMorton will be visiting the Library of Congress for the third program in ST&B’s fall series of lectures. He will be speaking about “Climate and Wildfires in the 21st century” on Thursday, Oct. 9 at 11:30 a.m.  in the Pickford Theater, Library of Congress Madison Building. He will be talking about his research using NASA satellite data and climate models, which have projected drier conditions across the United States and other fire-prone landscapes in coming decades, with an increase in frequency of extreme events (e.g., megafires).

In August 2013, Morton talked about the 2013 wildfire season as well as future trends for wildfires and how NASA resources are used to help detect and monitor wildfires around the world in this NASA interview .

If you cannot make it to the lecture, it will be captured and later broadcast on the Library’s science/technology webcast page and YouTube channel “Topics in Science” playlist in the coming months. In the meantime you might be interested in viewing a past lecture related to wildfire management. In 2007 NASA senior earth scientist Compton Tucker visited the Library and discussed “Observing, Fighting, and Mitigating Damage from Wildfires.”

[September 2015 Update: You can view a recording of this lecture via the Library’s webcast page or YouTube channel]

I’d like to thank Douglas Morton for his help in the writing of this article.

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