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New trees grow in what was once a forest destroyed by fire in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, June 21, 2011. (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

 

A study released Monday claims that climate change is likely to cause more frequent wildfires and possibly transform the forests and ecosystem of America's iconic Yellowstone National Park.

The landscape of the park, which straddles the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, is dominated by dense forests of narrow lodgepole pine trees.  However, the study suggests that more open spaces, grasslands, and forests of other types of fir trees and shrubs could characterize the park in the future.

These finds are the result of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The study argues that years when no wildfires break out will become rare by 2050, and ravaging fires will become the norm by 2075.

The authors of the study made the forecast by examining climate data from 1972 to 1999 and creating a statistical pattern by combining the data with figures on the size and frequency of Rocky Mountain fires greater than 500 acres (200 hectares) in the same period.  Then, they projected how climate change of up to one degree Celsius annually, combined with earlier snowmelt, would affect fires in the park through 2099.

"What surprised us about our results was the speed and scale of the projected changes in fire in Greater Yellowstone," said Professor Anthony Westerling of the University of California, Merced.

"We expected fire to increase with increased temperatures, but we did not expect it to increase so much or so quickly. We were also surprised by how consistent the changes were across different climate projections."

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Yellowstone National Park is no stranger to wildfires.  A devastating fire that broke out in 1988 devoured 1,200 square miles (311,000 hectares), affecting over one-third of the park.  What the study shows, however, is an increased time frame for which the fires will occur.

"Large, severe fires are normal for this ecosystem. It has burned this way about every 100 to 300 years, for thousands of years," said co-author Monica Turner of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"But, if the current relationship between climate and large fires holds true, a warming climate will drive more frequent large fires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the future."

If the lodgepole pines that blanket the park do not have enough time to recover between blazes - and experts say this process can take up to 90 years - they will likely be replaced by faster-growing shrub varietals and trees like the aspen and Douglas fir.  And, if the environment is changed in such a way, the wildlife is sure to be affected too.

The study was published online in the July 25 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.