Large wildfires create weather that promotes more fire

  • Art
  • June 19, 2024

Large wildfires create weather that promotes more fire, A new study from UC Riverside shows that soot from major wildfires in California traps sunlight, making days warmer and drier than they should be.

Many studies look at the effect of climate change on forest fires. However, this study sought to understand the opposite: whether large fires also change the climate.

“I wanted to learn how weather is affected by aerosols emitted by wildfires as they burn,” said study lead author and UCR PhD student James Gomez.

To find his answers, Gomez analyzed peak fire days and emissions from every fire season over the past two decades. Of these fire days, he examined a subset that occurred when the temperature was lower and the humidity was higher. “I looked at abnormally cool or wet days during fire season, both with and without fires. This largely removes the fire effects,” Gomez said.

Published in the magazine Atmospheric chemistry and physics, the research showed that large fires did indeed have an effect. They made it hotter and drier than normal on the days the fires were burning. The extra heat and drought can then make conditions favorable for more fire.

“It seems like these fires are creating their own fire brigade,” Gomez said.

The most intense fires occurred in Northern California, where vegetation is denser than elsewhere in the state. On average, temperatures during the fires were about 1 degree Celsius warmer per day.

There are probably two reasons for this. One, soot traps heat, and two, the extra heat reduces humidity in the atmosphere, making it harder for clouds to form.

“Fires emit smoke containing black carbon or soot. Because it is very dark, the soot absorbs sunlight more easily than bright or reflective things,” Gomez said.

There are two types of aerosols: reflective and absorbent. Sulfate aerosols, byproducts of fossil fuel combustion, are reflective and can cool the environment. These particles reflect the sun’s energy back into space, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Recent UCR research points to an unfortunate byproduct of improving air quality by reducing sulfate aerosols. Because these particles have a cooling effect, removing them will make climate change more severe and increase the number of forest fires, especially in forests in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sulfate aerosols can also cause clouds to become brighter, more reflective and more effective at cooling the planet.

The researchers note that the only way to prevent additional wildfires when cleaning up reflective sulfate air pollution is to simultaneously reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Absorbent aerosols have the opposite effect. They trap light and heat in the atmosphere, which can cause temperatures to rise. Black carbon, the most common aerosol emission from forest fires, is an absorbing aerosol. They not only ensure that the temperature increases directly, but also indirectly by discouraging cloud formation and precipitation.

“What I found is that the black carbon emitted by these wildfires in California does not increase the number of clouds,” Gomez said. “It’s hydrophobic.” Fewer clouds mean less precipitation, which is problematic for drought-prone states.

While some studies have shown a link between fires and brighter, more numerous clouds, this was not the case in this study.

In particular, the study found that days with lower fire emissions had a weaker effect on the weather. “If the aerosols come out in smaller quantities and more slowly, the heating effect is not as pronounced,” Gomez said.

Gomez is hopeful that limiting carbon emissions, along with better land management practices, can help reduce the number of major forest fires.

“There is a buildup of vegetation here in California. We need to allow small fires more frequently to reduce the amount of fuel available to burn,” Gomez said. “With more forest management and more prescribed burns, we could have fewer gigantic fires. We can control that.”

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