UW Faculty Takes Part in Study of Wildfire In Rocky Mountains
Bryan Shuman, a professor in the UW Department of Geology and Geophysics, was the main co-author of a paper, titled “Rocky Mountain Subalpine Forests Now Burning More Than Any Time in Recent Millennia,” that was published today (June 14) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The journal is one that focuses on multidisciplinary scientific serials, covering the biological, physical, and social sciences.
Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana, was the paper’s lead author, with Kyra Wolf, a Ph.D. candidate in paleoecology and forest ecology at the University of Montana, also contributing to the paper.
Higuera and Shuman conceived and designed the study, while Higuera and Wolf analyzed the data, a unique network of fire-history records, to understand how current fire activity compared to wildfires of the past.
The 2020 fire season marks the emergence of 21st-century fire regimes with distinctly higher rates of burning, not only from the late 20th century but relative to the past two millennia.
Researchers used charcoal found in lake sediment records to assemble the fire history across the Rocky Mountains. They discovered that, since 2000, wildfires are burning nearly twice as much area, on average, compared to the last 2,000 years.
Over that 2,000-year period, fires in high-elevation, subalpine forests historically burned, on average, once every 230 years. In the 21st century, those fires now occur, on average, every 117 years, which is 22 percent higher than the maximum rate over the past two millennia.
Subalpine forests are becoming less resilient and more susceptible to fires because the climate is warming.
Shuman helped plan the study, which came about because of more than $600,000 in grants he was able to obtain from the National Science Foundation to support undergraduate and graduate student research at UW.