In the forthcoming decades, risks of summer fire may increase in Mediterranean Europe. A recent study published in Scientific Reports, led by researchers of the University of Barcelona in collaboration with several other research institutions, shows that the direct effect of climate change in regulating fuel moisture (droughts leading to larger fires) is expected to be dominant, regarding the indirect effect of antecedent climate on fuel load and structure -that is, warmer/drier conditions that determine fuel availability. The researchers drew this conclusion after analyzing a set of empirical models linking the summer Burned Area to the climatic indicators. These models are also promising for developing a seasonal forecast system supporting fire management strategies.
According to the current state of regional fire risk projections, an increase in fire risks is expected, but the effects of climate change on burned areas are not always obvious. For instance, the direct effect of climate change in regulating fuel moisture could be counterbalanced by the indirect effects on fuel structure. For instance, warmer conditions increase droughts and reduce fuel quantity.
The research uses a large, high-quality database provided by the European Forest Fire Information System to analyze the burned areas in summer in Mediterranean Europe which coincide with drought episodes and are related to previous wet conditions. "The conclusion of the study indicates that there is a statistically significant relationship between fire and same-summer droughts in most regions, while antecedent climate conditions play a relatively minor role, except in few specific ecoregions. In addition, the drought-fire relationship is stronger in northern regions," says Marco Turco, researcher at the Meteorological Hazard Analysis Group (GAMA) of UB, led by Professor M. del Carme Llasat.
Therefore, drought plays a more prominent role in northern regions (generally wetter and more productive) than southern regions (drier), possibly because in southern areas the vegetation is better adapted to water scarcity. Thus, in the forthcoming decades, and especially in northern Mediterranean regions, the direct effect of climate change is expected to be more dominant, regarding the indirect effect of the previous climate.
Climate effects could thus overcome fire prevention efforts. In the past few decades, the measured trend of the burned area in Mediterranean Europe has been generally negative, while drought conditions have been increasing. These opposite trends suggest that management actions have so far counterbalanced the climatic trend. However, keeping fire management actions at the current level might not be enough to balance a future increase in droughts. Therefore researchers demand a reconsideration of the current management strategies.
Finally, the ability to model the link between drought and forest fires is crucial to identify key actions in adaptation strategies. The developed drought-fire models in this study can help to developing a seasonal forecast system for these management strategies. Also, according to the researchers, seasonal climate forecasts enable a more effective and dynamic adaptation to climate variability and change, offering an underexploited opportunity to reduce the fire impact of adverse climate conditions.
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