New research from University of Montana scientists suggests that the wildfire that ravaged Fort McMurray and continues to makes its way through the boreal forests of Alberta, Canada, isn't a one-time affair. The data suggests that such events will continue to become more common due to the effects of climate change.
The recent Canadian fire led to the evacuation of 88,000 people and a decrease in the nation's oil production by one-third. The new study indicates that northern boreal forests in the U.S. state of Alaska and other high altitude locations will continue to be vulnerable to such fires due to global warming.
Although the new study focused on Alaska, the findings - which have been accepted for publication in the journal Ecography: Pattern And Diversity in Ecology - suggest that climate change will continue to increase the risks of such fires in all high altitude regions around the world. Specifically, they found that the risk of a fire in northern regions will likely increase up to four times in comparison to recent decades.
"We looked at the location of wildfires across Alaska during the past 60 years and, not surprisingly, found that they were most common in regions with warm, dry summers," said Adam Young, a University of Montana scientist and co-author of the research.
Young claims that as regions get warmer due to climate change, there will be "a sharp increase in the likelihood that a fire will occur in a region."
Despite the fact that forest fires are a part of the history of the boreal forest and occur naturally, the data from recent decades points to a surge that might be reaching an unnatural level of frequency and intensity, suggesting a link to global warming and climate change.
"The Alberta wildfires are an excellent example of what we're seeing more and more of: warming means snow melts earlier, soils and vegetation dries out earlier, and the fire season starts earlier," said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist from the University of Arizona. "It's a train wreck."
Boreal forests and Tundra in the northern areas of the world contain a huge amount of carbon, storing around 50 percent of the total soil carbon on Earth. A higher frequency of fires will lead to more carbon in the atmosphere, increasing the concentration of climate changing gases and creating a dangerous negative feedback loop.
"Globally we are seeing more fires, bigger fires, more severe fires," said Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist who now works as a fire consultant.