The area of forest burnt by wildfires in the United States is set to increase by over 50% by 2050, according to research by climate scientists.
The study predicts that the worst affected areas will be the forests in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, where the area of forest destroyed by wildfire is predicted to increase by 78% and 175% respectively.
The research is based on a conservative temperature increase of 1.6 degrees Celsius over the next 40 years.
Published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists also say that the increase in wildfires will lead to significant deterioration of the air quality in the western United States due to greater presence of smoke.
"Wildfires, such as those in California earlier this year, are a serious problem in the United States and this research shows that climate change is going to make things significantly worse," says Dr Dominick Spracklen, from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds who is the lead author of the research.
"Our research shows that wildfires are strongly influenced by temperature. Hotter temperatures lead to dryer forests resulting in larger and more serious fires," explains Spracklen.
"In the Rocky Mountains we are predicting that the area burnt by wildfires will almost triple by 2050."
Scientists used data documenting the area of forest burned on federal land since 1980 along with weather data from the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, to construct a computer model that takes into account the factors that can best predict the area burned in each ecosystem in the western US.
Significantly, the research also predicts a 40% increase in the western United States in the concentration of tiny soot particles in the air, known to scientists as organic carbon aerosol. This will have important consequences on western US air quality and visibility.
"The US government has introduced legislation to try to improve air quality and visibility by 2064. Currently the main focus for environment agencies and campaigners is industry, but this research shows that, especially in the western US, wildfires will become an increasing source of air pollution," explains Dr Spracklen.
This work was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Dr Dominick Spracklen carried out the research whilst at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in collaboration with Jennifer Logan and Loretta Mickley.
For further information
Dominick Spracklen is available for interview, Tel: +44 113 343 7488, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or contact Clare Ryan, University of Leeds press office, Tel: +44 113 343 8059, Email: email@example.com
Notes to editors
The paper 'Impacts of climate change from 2000 to 2050 on wildfire activity and carbonaceous aerosol concentrations in the western United States', published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, is available to journalists on request.
Dr Dominick Spracklen is a research fellow in the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds.
The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK with more than 30,000 students from 130 countries and a turnover of £450m. The University is a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities and the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed it to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk
The School of Earth and Environment is established as one of the leading centres of international excellence across the Earth and Environmental Sciences. In the UK RAE 2008, we ranked second nationally in terms of research power. It focuses on a multidisciplinary approach to understanding our environment, studying the Earth from its core to its atmosphere and examining the social and economic dimensions of sustainability. www.see.leeds.ac.uk/index.htm
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