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Recent climate change: Long-term trends in meteorological forest fire danger in the Alps

Wastl, Clemens, Schunk, Christian, Leuchner, Michael, Pezzatti, Gianni B., Menzel, Annette
Agricultural and forest meteorology 2012 v.162-163 pp. 1-13
atmospheric precipitation, burning, climate, climate change, fire hazard, forest fires, history, meteorological data, statistical analysis, summer, temperature, valleys, winter, Alps region, Germany
Climate change is one of the key issues in current scientific research. In this paper we investigate the impacts of rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns on meteorological forest fire danger in the Alps. Our analysis is based on daily meteorological observations from 25 long-term stations in six Alpine countries. The selected stations are distributed more or less uniformly over the whole Alpine area and represent the different climate regions in this complex terrain. Stations with similar climatological conditions were grouped into regions. These were: Western Alps, Northern Alps, inner Alpine area and Southern Alps. The meteorological forest fire danger in the time period 1951–2010 was assessed on the basis of different forest fire danger indices (FWI, Nesterov, Baumgartner, etc.) calculated on a daily basis. A statistical percentile analysis revealed different impacts of recent climate change in the four regions. A significant increase in forest fire danger occurred at the stations in the Western Alps and even more strongly in the Southern Alps. Here, the yearly averaged fire danger increased during the past six decades. Additionally, in recent years the number of days with elevated forest fire danger (indices above a pre-defined threshold) has also increased. A comparatively weak increase was observed in the Northern Alps and no clear signal was evident at the stations in the inner Alpine valleys. In order to analyze extreme events (highest index value per year and region) extreme values statistics was applied. It was shown that the return period of extraordinarily high index values has decreased significantly over the past decades, especially in the Western and Southern Alps. For three pilot areas (Valais in the Western Alps, Bavaria in the Northern Alpine region and Ticino in the Southern Alps) a comparison with observed historical fire data is shown. In Valais, a region in the Western Alps with a generally low fire hazard, a weak trend toward more forest fires and more area burned could be found. The correlation between calculated indices and observed fires was quite low in this region. In Bavaria (Northern Alps) this correlation was higher, but while the trend of forest fires in Bavaria was decreasing in terms of number and burned area, the meteorological fire danger in contrast increased. Reasons for this contrasting trend may be related to altered anthropogenic factors such as less military activities, technical progress, and higher awareness. The correlation between indices and forest fires south of the Alps (Ticino) was considerably lower because here most forest fires occurred in winter when the meteorological fire danger is usually lower than in summer. In this region a positive trend in meteorological fire danger over recent decades was also counterbalanced by decreasing anthropogenic ignitions.