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Climate change projected to reduce prescribed burning opportunities in the south-eastern United States

June 1, 2020

Prescribed burning is a critical tool for managing wildfire risks and meeting ecological objectives, but its safe and effective application requires that specific meteorological criteria (a ‘burn window’) are met. Here, we evaluate the potential impacts of projected climatic change on prescribed burning in the south-eastern United States by applying a set of burn window criteria that capture temperature, relative humidity and wind speed to projections from an ensemble of Global Climate Models under two greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Regionally, the percentage of suitable days for burning changes little during winter but decreases substantially in summer owing to rising temperatures by the end of the 21st century compared with historical conditions. Management implications of such changes for six representative land management units include seasonal shifts in burning opportunities from summer to cool-season months, but with considerable regional variation. We contend that the practical constraints of rising temperatures on prescribed fire activities represent a significant future challenge and show that even meeting basic burn criteria (as defined today) will become increasingly difficult over time, which speaks to the need for adaptive management strategies to prepare for such changes.

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