26-Jul-2011 - Yellowstone burning: big fires to hit world's first national park annually by 2050

Image of Yellowstone Park
An icon of conservation and wilderness worldwide, Yellowstone National Park could see its ecosystem flip due to increased big fires from climate change warn experts in a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). A sudden increase in large fires—defined as over 200 hectares (500 acres)—by mid-century could shift the Yellowstone ecosystem from largely mature conifer forests to younger forests with open shrub and grasslands.

"Large, severe fires are normal for this ecosystem. It has burned this way about every few hundred years for thousands of years. But if the current relationship between climate and large fires holds true, a warming climate will drive more frequent large fires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the future," explains Monica Turner in a press release. An ecologist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Turner has worked in the Greater Yellowstone area for over two decades.

Using past data as well as modeling, the study found that hotter, drier conditions in the western US will quickly turn big fires from a somewhat common occurrence to an annual one in the Yellowstone ecosystem. In fact, they predict by 2050 big fires will hit the Yellowstone ecosystem every year, leading to an estimated 100,00 hectares (247,105 acres) burning annually. Fire rotation—the time an area has to recover from fire impacts—will increase to less than 30 years, which will make it very difficult for some tree species to thrive. Prior to this, average fire rotation has been between 100-300 years. 

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