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Researchers Highlighted Role Of Climate Change In The Rise In Frequency, Severity Of Forest Fires

FAIRBANKS, Alaska – Scientific researchers hosted a press conference call today to discuss the role that a warming climate plays in the rise in frequency and severity of forest fires in Alaska.

Leading the press conference call were Dr. Scott Rupp, Professor of Forestry at the University of Alaska and Principal Investigator for the Department of Interior’s Alaska Climate Science Center, and Ryan Kelly, a University of Illinois Ph.D. candidate who is studying the long-term drivers and consequences of boreal forest burning in Alaska. Dr. Rupp also directs the Scenarios Network for Alaska & Artic Planning (SNAP) and has authored more than 50 journal articles and book chapters in climatology and ecology. The two researchers authored a recent study on the impact of climate change on forest fires in Alaska.

“In our study area, there has been more wildfire in recent decades than at any time in the past 10,000 years,” said Kelly, the study’s lead author. “Extensive burning has converted much of the modern landscape to young broadleaf forests, in place of the highly flammable evergreens that typically dominate boreal vegetation. In the past, this vegetation feedback constrained fire frequency even when the climate was warm and dry. However, models predict further warming and increased fire activity in coming decades, and it is unclear whether boreal forest ecosystems can continue to self-regulate under such extreme conditions."

The press conference call followed President Obama’s historic action plan on climate change, which includes the nation’s first-ever limits on industrial carbon pollution from power plants, the biggest source of dangerous carbon in the United States.

According to data from the Natural Resources Defense Council, in 2012, the average size of wildfires in the U.S. has grown larger, exceeding decadal trends. Currently, the average fire size is 165 acres per fire, while the decadal average of 2001-2010 was approximately 89 acres per fire. Alaska alone has experienced a total of five broken heat records and 72 large wildfires.

Fire suppression costs on federal lands alone have totaled $1.9 billion, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. In addition, assessments show that states pay another 25 percent on top of federal firefighting expenses. No doubt, the increased frequency and severity of forest fires in Alaska forecasted by researchers will have a devastating impact on Alaska’s economy and the livelihood of its people. 

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