The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, which ravaged the Mountain Shadows subdivision, proved to be one of the most destructive in Colorado history. The hotter, drier climate will transform Rocky Mountain forests, unleashing wider wildfires and insect attacks, federal scientists warn in a report for Congress and the White House. Photo: RJ Sangosti / Denver Post

By Bruce Finley
3 April 2013

(Denver Post) – The hotter, drier climate will transform Rocky Mountain forests, unleashing wider wildfires and insect attacks, federal scientists warn in a report for Congress and the White House.

The U.S. Forest Service scientists project that, by 2050, the area burned each year by increasingly severe wildfires will at least double, to around 20 million acres nationwide.

Some regions, including western Colorado, are expected to face up to a fivefold increase in acres burned if climate change continues on the current trajectory.

Floods, droughts, and heat waves, driven by changing weather patterns, also are expected to spur bug infestations of the sort seen across 4 million acres of Colorado pine forests.

"We're going to have to figure out some more effective and efficient ways for adapting rather than just pouring more and more resources and money at it," Forest Service climate change advisor Dave Cleaves said.

"We're going to have to have a lot more partnerships with states and communities to look at fires and forest health problems."

The Forest Service scientists this week attended a "National Adaptation" forum in Denver, where experts explored responses to climate change. They've synthesized 25 years of federal climate science as part of the National Climate Assessment — now being finalized for the president and Congress — as the basis for navigating changes.

Degradation of city watersheds is anticipated along with diminished cleansing capacity of forests. Forests today absorb an estimated 13 percent of U.S. carbon pollution.

New data shows bug attacks are already broadening. In Colorado, insects target trees at higher elevations, such as white-bark pines found in wilderness areas, said David Peterson, a Forest Service research biologist who co-wrote the 265-page report.

"It's just unprecedented things happening. We're getting into extreme events that seem to be having more and more effects across broader landscapes," Peterson said. […]

Fires and insect attacks "are only going to get even worse," Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday. "We need a real federal commitment to managing our forests in a way that will prepare and protect our communities, protect and enhance wildlife habitat and protect our water for drinking, irrigation and fishing." [more]

Feds project climate change will double wildfire risk in forests

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