Articles | Volume 13, issue 1
Research article
15 Jan 2016
Research article |  | 15 Jan 2016

Climate, CO2 and human population impacts on global wildfire emissions

W. Knorr, L. Jiang, and A. Arneth

Abstract. Wildfires are by far the largest contributor to global biomass burning and constitute a large global source of atmospheric traces gases and aerosols. Such emissions have a considerable impact on air quality and constitute a major health hazard. Biomass burning also influences the radiative balance of the atmosphere and is thus not only of societal, but also of significant scientific interest. There is a common perception that climate change will lead to an increase in emissions as hot and dry weather events that promote wildfire will become more common. However, even though a few studies have found that the inclusion of CO2 fertilisation of photosynthesis and changes in human population patterns will tend to somewhat lower predictions of future wildfire emissions, no such study has included full ensemble ranges of both climate predictions and population projections, including the effect of different degrees of urbanisation.

Here, we present a series of 124 simulations with the LPJ–GUESS–SIMFIRE global dynamic vegetation–wildfire model, including a semi-empirical formulation for the prediction of burned area based on fire weather, fuel continuity and human population density. The simulations use Climate Model Intercomparison Project 5 (CMIP5) climate predictions from eight Earth system models. These were combined with two Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) and five scenarios of future human population density based on the series of Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) to assess the sensitivity of emissions to the effect of climate, CO2 and humans. In addition, two alternative parameterisations of the semi-empirical burned-area model were applied. Contrary to previous work, we find no clear future trend of global wildfire emissions for the moderate emissions and climate change scenario based on the RCP 4.5. Only historical population change introduces a decline by around 15 % since 1900. Future emissions could either increase for low population growth and fast urbanisation, or continue to decline for high population growth and slow urbanisation. Only for high future climate change (RCP8.5), wildfire emissions start to rise again after ca. 2020 but are unlikely to reach the levels of 1900 by the end of the 21st century. We find that climate warming will generally increase the risk of fire, but that this is only one of several equally important factors driving future levels of wildfire emissions, which include population change, CO2 fertilisation causing woody thickening, increased productivity and fuel load and faster litter turnover in a warmer climate.

Short summary
Wildfires are the largest contributor to atmospheric pollution from all fires globally, with major consequences for health and air quality. This study examines the main contributing factors governing wildfire emissions during the 20th and 21st centuries using simulations with climate and ecosystem models. Contrary to common perception, climate change is only one of several important factors, but population change, urbanization and changing atmospheric CO2 levels are at least equally important.
Final-revised paper