After consuming more than 153,000 acres, including nearly 14,000 residences, and accounting for 88 fatalities, the Camp Fire has finally been contained. But while communities can now commit fully to recovering from the catastrophic blaze, the landscape itself may have a harder time doing so. Blame climate change.
A growing body of research suggests that, thanks to various environmental symptoms of climate change, America’s forests are increasingly at a disadvantage when it comes to recovering from devastating wildfires. A survey of 52 blazes across 1,485 locations in the Rockies, published earlier this year in Ecology Letters, found that warming temperatures enhance moisture stressz on plants, which in turn dramatically inhibits post-wildfire tree growth.
The survey revealed “significant decreases in tree regeneration in the 21st century,” wrote the research team, led by assistant professor Camille Stevens-Rumann. “Annual moisture deficits were significantly greater from 2000 to 2015 as compared to 1985 to 1999, suggesting increasingly unfavorable post-fire growing conditions, corresponding to significantly lower seedling densities and increased regeneration failure.” This isn’t an issue of rainfall, but outright soil moisture, which The Atlantic reported in August is at its lowest level in years in many western parts of the United States. Drier soil means more fuel, which means a landscape that scores low for “resiliency,” the ecological term referring to a system’s ability to recover and adapt to volatile climate—in this case, major conflagrations. [Continue reading…]