Climate changes predict more frequent fires in Yellowstone

Imagine a Yellowstone National Park without thick, verdant forests.

Some of the region’s top fire and forest scientists say the fires of 1988 are nothing compared to the size and frequency of those that will burn by the middle of this century. And lead researcher Anthony Westerling of the University of California Merced and his team of Monica Turner, Erica Smithwick, William Romme and Michael Ryan say Yellowstone is typical of what other areas in the West will experience as temperatures rise.

Their study confirms what earlier forest scientists have reported. The size and frequency of fires in the West already have risen since the 1988 fires, the signal fires of a changing climate. The process will continue no matter what we do and Westerling’s team modeled the logical direction of the flora under more frequent large fires.

“The magnitude of predicted increases in fire occurrence and area burned suggests that there is a real likelihood of Yellowstone’s forests being converted to non-forest vegetation during the mid-21st century because reduced fire intervals would likely preclude post-fire tree regeneration,” the scientists wrote in the peer-reviewed paper. “Continued warming could transform greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century.”

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