1Land in the Earth System, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg, Germany
2Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA
3Department of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA
4National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, USA
Abstract. Landscape fires during the 21st century are expected to change in response to multiple agents of global change. Important controlling factors include climate controls on the length and intensity of the fire season, fuel availability, and fire management, which are already anthropogenically perturbed today and are predicted to change further in the future. An improved understanding of future fires will contribute to an improved ability to project future anthropogenic climate change, as changes in fire activity will in turn impact climate.
In the present study we used a coupled-carbon-fire model to investigate how changes in climate, demography, and land use may alter fire emissions. We used climate projections following the SRES A1B scenario from two different climate models (ECHAM5/MPI-OM and CCSM) and changes in population. Land use and harvest rates were prescribed according to the RCP 45 scenario. In response to the combined effect of all these drivers, our model estimated, depending on our choice of climate projection, an increase in future (2075–2099) fire carbon emissions by 17 and 62% compared to present day (1985–2009). The largest increase in fire emissions was predicted for Southern Hemisphere South America for both climate projections. For Northern Hemisphere Africa, a region that contributed significantly to the global total fire carbon emissions, the response varied between a decrease and an increase depending on the climate projection.
We disentangled the contribution of the single forcing factors to the overall response by conducting an additional set of simulations in which each factor was individually held constant at pre-industrial levels. The two different projections of future climate change evaluated in this study led to increases in global fire carbon emissions by 22% (CCSM) and 66% (ECHAM5/MPI-OM). The RCP 45 projection of harvest and land use led to a decrease in fire carbon emissions by −5%. The RCP 26 and RCP 60 harvest and landuse projections caused decreases around −20%. Changes in human ignition led to an increase of 20%. When we also included changes in fire management efforts to suppress fires in densely populated areas, global fire carbon emission decreased by −6% in response to changes in population density.
We concluded from this study that changes in fire emissions in the future are controlled by multiple interacting factors. Although changes in climate led to an increase in future fire emissions this could be globally counterbalanced by coupled changes in land use, harvest, and demography.