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Fanning the flames of extreme wildfires

NSF Award:

Understanding the coupled response of vegetation and fire to climatic variation since the Last Glacial Maximum  (Marlon Jennifer R)

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A study conducted by NSF postdoctoral fellow and Yale University paleoecologist Jennifer Marlon showed that the arrival of settlers in the mid-19th century changed the 3,000-year-long relationship between climate and wildfires in the U.S. As a result, the Western U.S. now suffers from a fire deficit, one that nature is remedying with devastating fury. Any buildup of brush, leaves and twigs can turn small wildfires into catastrophic ones.

For the study, Marlon and colleagues used sedimentary charcoal accumulation rates to construct baseline levels of burning for the studied time interval. They found that for 3 millennia, climate determined fire activity:  Hot, dry weather led to increased wildfire activity and cold, wet weather suppressed it.

Forest fire peaks occurred during medieval times and the 1800s while steep drops occurred during the Little Ice Age and the 20th century. The researchers attribute the decline to human behaviors such as land clearing and logging, as well as ecological and climate change.

Due to global warming, the researchers suggest that the probability of fire is again increasing. Recent catastrophic fires indicate that current fire suppression practices are unsustainable and may require reevaluation, as fires are expected to increase even further in the coming decades.


  • a wildfire at its height
Wildfires at their height in the western U.S.

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