Western U.S. wildfires are likely to increase in the coming decades, according to a new tree-ring study led by the University of Comahue in Argentina and involving the University of Colorado at Boulder that links episodic fire outbreaks in the past five centuries with periods of warming sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic.
States like Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and South Dakota all had an increased prevalence of wildfires in recent centuries when a phenomenon known as the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation -- similar but longer in duration than the better known El Nino-Southern Oscillation -- periodically shifted from a cool to a warm mode that lasted roughly 60 years each time, said the study authors.
Warmer waters in the North Atlantic correspond with episodes of drought and subsequent fires in the West as shown by fire scars in annual tree rings studied by the researchers, said Thomas Kitzberger of the University of Comahue, who led the study with researchers from CU-Boulder, the University of Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service and Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research Inc., a private lab in Fort Collins, Colo.
Kitzberger, who received his doctorate from CU-Boulder in 1994 under co-author and CU-Boulder geography Professor Thomas Veblen, said the North Atlantic warming trend, coupled with warming temperatures and the earlier onset of spring in the West, poses "an increased hazard for wildfires that may continue for decades." The paper was published the week of Dec. 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While previous tree-ring studies have linked fires in different regions of western North America to drought associated with the warm El Nio phase or cool La Nia phase of the Southern El-Nio Southern Oscillation phenomenon in the Pacific, the new study is the first to correlate the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation with increased North American fires on such a
Contact: Thomas Veblen
University of Colorado at Boulder