Report: Human-caused climate change increases likelihood of severe fire seasons in Alaska

A report released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that the likelihood of a severe fire season in Alaska, similar to 2015 when more than 5.1 million acres burned, has risen significantly (34-60%) due to human-caused climate change. The 2015 Alaska fire season burned the second largest number of acres in Alaska since records began in 1940.

A burnout operation on the 31,705-acre Aggie Creek Fire along the trans-Alaska oil pipeline north of Fairbanks on July 16, 2015. Photo by Phillip Spor

A burnout operation on the 31,705-acre Aggie Creek Fire along the trans-Alaska oil pipeline north of Fairbanks on July 16, 2015. Photo by Phillip Spor

The NOAA report was published today in a special edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The fifth edition of “Explaining Extreme Events from a Climate Perspective” includes 25 peer-reviewed research papers that examine episodes of extreme weather from 2015 over five continents and two oceans, according to a press release issued by NOAA. The report features the research of 116 scientists from 18 countries analyzing both historical observations and changing trends along with model results to determine whether and how climate change may have influenced the event.

The strongest evidence for a human influence was found for temperature-related events – the increased intensity of numerous heat waves, diminished snowpack in the Cascades, record-low Arctic sea ice extent in March and the extraordinary extent and duration of Alaska wildfires, according to the report.

“The 2015 fire season in Alaska was remarkable for its early-season total acres burned, which resulted from 1) fuel flammability due to the warm and dry conditions of May and June, and 2) lightning-induced ignitions in June,” authors concluded in the research paper. “The rains of mid-summer likely prevented a new record for area burned in Alaska in 2015. An attribution analysis indicates that 2015’s fuel conditions reached a level that is 34%–60% more likely to occur in today’s anthropogenically changed climate than in the past. The major uncertainty in such an attribution assessment is the as-yet unknown relationship between climate change and the major lightning events that ignite widespread fires.”

Alaska Division of Forestry Fire Behavior Analyst Robert ‘Zeke’ Ziel, along with meteorologists Sharon Alden and Heidi Strader from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, were contributing authors for the research paper titled, “An Assessment of the Role of Anthropogenic Climate Change in the Alaska Fire Season of 2015.” They worked with scientists and researchers from the National Weather Service and University of Alaska Fairbanks to develop the paper.To read the full report or the research paper on the 2015 Alaska fire season, go to: https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/explaining-extreme-events-from-a-climate-perspective/

About Alaska Division of Forestry

Alaska Division of Forestry website: http://forestry.alaska.gov/ Mission: The Alaska Division of Forestry proudly serves Alaskans through forest management and wildland fire protection. The Wildland Fire and Aviation Program provides safe, cost-effective and efficient fire protection services and related fire and aviation management activities to protect human life and values on State, private and municipal lands. The wildland fire program cooperates with other wildland fire agencies on a statewide, interagency basis.

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