Will global warming produce more frequent and more intense wildfires?

There isn’t a direct relationship between climate change and fire, but researchers have found strong correlations between warm summer temperatures and large fire years, so there is general consensus that fire occurrence will increase with climate change.

Hot, dry conditions, however, do not automatically mean fire—something needs to create the spark and actually start the fire. In some parts of the country (like Alaska), most fires are ignited by lightning. In other regions (like California), most fires are ignited by humans.

Climate models tell us that average summer temperatures will continue to increase through this century, but ignition is the wild card. What will happen in the future is a more complicated story because we don’t understand what will happen with convective storms and the lightning.

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Does the USGS monitor global warming?

Not specifically. Our charge is to understand characteristics of the Earth, especially the Earth's surface, that affect our Nation's land, water, and biological resources. That includes quite a bit of environmental monitoring. Other agencies, especially NOAA and NASA, are specifically funded to monitor global temperature and atmospheric phenomena...

What is the difference between global warming and climate change?

Although people tend to use these terms interchangeably, global warming is just one aspect of climate change. “Global warming” refers to the rise in global temperatures due mainly to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Climate change” refers to the increasing changes in the measures of climate over a long period...

What are the long-term effects of climate change?

Scientists have predicted that long-term effects of climate change will include a decrease in sea ice and an increase in permafrost thawing, an increase in heat waves and heavy precipitation, and decreased water resources in semi-arid regions. Below are some of the regional impacts of global change forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on...

Why is climate change happening and what are the causes?

There are many “natural” and “anthropogenic” (human-induced) factors that contribute to climate change. Climate change has always happened on Earth, which is clearly seen in the geological record; it is the rapid rate and the magnitude of climate change occurring now that is of great concern worldwide. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb...

How can climate change affect natural disasters?

With increasing global surface temperatures the possibility of more droughts and increased intensity of storms will likely occur. As more water vapor is evaporated into the atmosphere it becomes fuel for more powerful storms to develop. More heat in the atmosphere and warmer ocean surface temperatures can lead to increased wind speeds in tropical...

What should I know about wildfires and debris flows?

Wildland fires are inevitable in the western United States. Expansion of human development into forested areas has created a situation where wildfires can adversely affect lives and property, as can the flooding and landslides that occur in the aftermath of the fires. There is a need to develop tools and methods to identify and quantify the...

Can major landslides and debris flows happen in all areas of the U.S.?

Landslides can and do occur in every state and territory of the U.S.; however, the type, severity, and frequency of landslide activity varies from place to place, depending on the terrain, geology, and climate. Major storms have caused major or widespread landslides in Washington state, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Hawaii, Virginia, Ohio,...

What is a landslide and what causes one?

A landslide is defined as the movement of a mass of rock, debris, or earth down a slope. Landslides are a type of "mass wasting," which denotes any down-slope movement of soil and rock under the direct influence of gravity. The term "landslide" encompasses five modes of slope movement: falls, topples, slides, spreads, and flows. These are further...
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Date published: September 13, 2019

Fast Fire Facts from USGS


You’ve got questions about USGS fire science. We’ve got answers.

Date published: September 7, 2017

Increases in Wildfire-Caused Erosion Could Impact Water Supply and Quality in the West

A growing number of wildfire-burned areas throughout the western United States are expected to increase soil erosion rates within watersheds, causing more sediment to be present in downstream rivers and reservoirs, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Date published: August 28, 2000

GeoMAC Provides Critical Support for Ongoing Western Wildfires

In response to the devastating wildfires that are burning lands across the West, the U.S. Geological Survey has teamed with federal firefighting agencies and private industry to form the Geo-spatial Multi-Agency Coordination group (GeoMAC)

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January 20, 2017

Post-Wildfire Debris Flood: 2016 Fish Fire, Van Tassel Canyon, CA

The June 2016 Fish Fire burned over 12 km^2 in Los Angeles County, California. After the fire, the USGS installed an automated rain-triggered camera and laser stage gage to monitor post-wildfire flooding and debris flow in Van Tassel Canyon near Azusa. This video shows the peak flow triggered by an intense rainstorm on January 20, 2017. The laser stage gage, which is

Bears at the Lateral West Fire
November 30, 2016

Bears at the Lateral West Fire

Black bear and her cub travelling along the edge of the Lateral West Fire. 

Smoky Mountain fires on the night of Nov. 28, 2016
November 28, 2016

Smoky Mountain fires on the night of Nov. 28, 2016

In an extreme drought and amid high winds, many fires burned together in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the town of Gatlinburg and nearby communities to form the deadly fire that became known as Chimney Tops 2. This photo was taken on the night of Nov. 28, 2016, as the fire was spreading rapidly.

Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park
November 23, 2016

Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park

Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park. 

A Landsat image showing the damage from the Wallow Fire in Arizona, 2011.
November 1, 2016

A Landsat image showing the damage from the Wallow Fire in Arizona, 20

A Landsat image showing the damage from the Wallow Fire in Arizona, 2011.

Image shows a satellite image of California with a wildfire shown in red
August 23, 2016

Landsat 8 View of Soberanes Wildfire Beginning

Landsat 8's July 29 pass over central California shortly after the outbreak of the fire. Credit: USGS/NASA Landsat Program.

Person writing on a data sheet in a burned area of the Funny River fire on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
June 30, 2015

Fire effects monitoring after the Funny River Fire, Kenai Peninsula AK

Pre- and post-fire measurements of fire effects help ecologists, fire scientists, and managers determine how the severity of wildfires affects plants, animal habitat, and ecosystem services

video thumbnail: USGS and 2007 California Wildfires: The Big Picture
December 30, 2007

USGS and 2007 California Wildfires: The Big Picture

Robert Fisher, USGS Research Biologist talks about the overall impact of fires on the biology of the area.

sagebrush wildfire
October 18, 2006

Wildfire in sagebrush-steppe region

Prescribed fire is one strategy managers employ for multiple reasons, including descreasing fuels to reduce the probability of severe future wildfires and modifying habitat to benefit native plants and animals. USGS scientists are studying the efficacy of these treatments in forested and sagebrush-steppe ecosystems and their effects on streams, soils, wildlife, and

Joshua trees burning in the Bulldog Fire in Mojave Desert tortoise habitat of southwestern Utah
December 31, 1999

Joshua trees burning in the Bulldog Fire in Mojave Desert tortoise

Joshua trees burning in the Bulldog Fire in Mojave Desert tortoise habitat of southwestern Utah. These fires result in population losses of tortoises and modify the habitat in ways that takes decades to centuries to recover.