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Scorched Earth: The past, present and future of human influences on wildfires

Date:
September 15, 2011
Source:
National Science Foundation
Summary:
Fires have continuously occurred on Earth for at least the last 400 million years. But since the 1970s, the frequency of wildfires has increased at least four-fold, and the total size of burn areas has increased at least six-fold in the western United States alone. Steadily rising, the US's bill for fighting wildfires now totals $1.5 billion per year.

Satellite studies indicate that more than 30 percent of the Earth is subjected to frequent fires.
Credit: NOAA

Fires have continuously occurred on Earth for at least the last 400 million years. But since the 1970s, the frequency of wildfires has increased at least four-fold, and the total size of burn areas has increased at least six-fold in the western United States alone. Steadily rising, the U.S.'s bill for fighting wildfires now totals $1.5 billion per year.

How much of the increases in the frequency and size of fires are due to human activities? No one knows for sure. But a paper in this week's issue of the Journal of Biogeography puts the role of fire in natural ecosystems into context and provides support for efforts to plan for future risks from wildfires.

Produced by an international team of researchers, the paper presents a new framework for considering wildfires based on Earth's pre-human fire history, ways that humans have historically used and managed fire and ways that they currently do so. "We need to look into the past to understand our current and future relationship with fire activity," says Jennifer Balch of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

This research emphasizes the importance of understanding the relative influences of climate, human ignition sources and cultural practices in particular environments in order to design sustainable fire management practices that protect human health, property and ecosystems.

This research was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by National Science Foundation. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. David M. J. S. Bowman, Jennifer Balch, Paulo Artaxo, William J. Bond, Mark A. Cochrane, Carla M. D’Antonio, Ruth DeFries, Fay H. Johnston, Jon E. Keeley, Meg A. Krawchuk, Christian A. Kull, Michelle Mack, Max A. Moritz, Stephen Pyne, Christopher I. Roos, Andrew C. Scott, Navjot S. Sodhi, Thomas W. Swetnam. The human dimension of fire regimes on Earth. Journal of Biogeography, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2011.02595.x

Cite This Page:

National Science Foundation. "Scorched Earth: The past, present and future of human influences on wildfires." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 September 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110915113756.htm>.
National Science Foundation. (2011, September 15). Scorched Earth: The past, present and future of human influences on wildfires. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 15, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110915113756.htm
National Science Foundation. "Scorched Earth: The past, present and future of human influences on wildfires." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110915113756.htm (accessed April 15, 2014).

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