Humans Outweigh Climate’s Influence On Fire

12:00 minutes

Glacier National Park with ample restoration. Credit: Kerry Kemp

As climate change sweeps across Southern California, temperatures are rising and rainfall is becoming more erratic. And while both of those factors can fuel bigger blazes, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences points to an even larger influence on future wildfires: humans. Alexandra Syphard, one of the authors of the study, says that in heavily populated regions, the human influence on fire appears to override the effects of climate change.

But in wild areas where nature sets the rules, scientists are now seeing large shifts in ecosystems after a burn. In some parts of the Rockies, for example, Camille Stevens-Rumann says wildfires have driven forested landscapes to extinction, as grassy meadows sprout up to replace them. She details those findings in the journal Ecology Letters.

Syphard and Stevens-Rumann join Ira to talk about the ecosystems that rise from the ashes—and whether human developments might have to change as well.

View the photos below for a look at the shifting ecosystems.

The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, where there are few surviving trees in a much changed landscape. Credit: Camille Stevens-Rumann
Payette National Forest, above the South Fork of the Salmon River drainage in Idaho. It burned in 2000. Credit: Kerry Kemp
A portrait of Camille Stevens-Rumann, as seen through a charred tree, taken while on a fire crew in Nevada. Credit: Thomas Haney

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Segment Guests

Alexandra Syphard

Alexandra Syphard is Senior Research Scientist at the Conservation Biology Institute in Corvallis, Oregon.

Camille Stevens-Rumann

Camille Stevens-Rumann is an assistant professor of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at Colorado State University, and a former wildland firefighter. She’s in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Meet the Producer

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

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