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Imagery Reveals a Record Breaking 2012 Fire Season

Mark Alonzo

Have you, like me, been wondering whether the 2012 fire season would turn out to be a record breaker? Here in Boulder and throughout the Western U.S. we were breathing smoke much of the summer. Even in December large fires are currently active in both Colorado and Oklahoma.

U.S. Fires 2012
Fires that burned between January 1 and October 31, 2012, as detected by the MODIS instruments. Yellow and orange indicates fires that were more intense and had a larger area of active burning. Image provided by NASA.

Well, it turns out that records based mainly on remotely sensed imagery and maintained by the National Interagency Fire Center(NIFC) and the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED) both show that 2012 was, indeed, a doozy for fires in the U.S.

Among the many records that were set:

  • Highest average fire size on record
  • Largest emissions of trace gases from fires on record
  • The third highest acreage burned since 1960

The trend is definitely toward more burned acreage and fire emissions (carbon released into atmosphere) in the U.S. through time. NASA says that, as you might expect, the increase in burned area is strongly correlated to dryness during the fire season. Climate projections suggest a consistently longer, stronger fire season throughout North America by 2100.

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