It’s been a terrible few years for fires, with thousands of homes lost every summer. NASA is using its two Earth-monitoring satellites, Terra and Aqua, to help monitor forest fires from space — and to find out how much worse it’s going to get.
There are plenty of reasons fires have gotten worse. For one thing, more Americans are building homes in fire-prone areas. And the changing climate has brought pine beetles — which turn living trees into dead kindling — to the Rockies by the droves. But there are also bigger, underlying shifts that are stoking the flames: The increasing dryness of land across the country.
NASA describes this concept as “potential evaporation”, a way to gauge how dry the land will be on any given day. Using satellite data going back to 1980, they’ve created a new projection for potential evaporation in America over the next 90 years, releasing the results of the study on YouTube yesterday. As you can see, it doesn’t look great. Using a maximum increase of one millimetre of evaporation per day, their projection shows how “fire country” is set to absorb new parts of the US.
“We consider a 1 mm/day increase in potential evaporation to be an ‘Extreme’ event for fires, something like 2012 in Colorado,” NASA’s scientists explain on YouTube. “By these projections, fire years like 2012 would be the new normal in regions like the western US by the end of the 21st century.”
To make matters worse, areas that aren’t at risk today — like parts of Michigan and the East Coast — might, in a few decades, start to see fire activity. [PhysOrg]