GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) — Scientists have known for decades that climate change makes wildfires more common and more intense. But, a recent study has found a new connection between fires and global warming.
Historically, forest fires have been rare in high elevation areas, at least 8,200 feet above sea level, because of the generally cooler temperatures and wet conditions. But scientists recently found wildfires in the Western US have been spreading to higher elevations due to warmer and drier conditions clearly linked to climate change.
Scientists from McGill University studied high-elevation areas out West from 1984-2017. They found dry air, responsible for making vegetation burn more easily, has moved upward at a rate of about 29 feet each year. Fires are able to push into places that were once too wet to burn, moving to higher ground at a rate of 25 feet per year. This means an additional 31,500 square miles of mountainous US is now more vulnerable to fires compared to decades ago.
These fires can have terrible consequences. Snowmelt is a source of freshwater for around 60 million people in the Western US. Fires can change how snow accumulates and melts, along with polluting the water that does flow downstream.
Plantlife in high elevations have not adapted for fire, so they don’t grow back as easily when burned. Fires also heat up the surroundings, threatening native plants and animals that depend on cooler water and air.
Moving forward, activists are pushing for more fire resilient communities, along with preventing further environmental warming.