In a new study, North Carolina State University researchers found that more extreme and frequent droughts would dramatically increase the amount of forest burned by wildfire in the southern Appalachian region of the Southeast through the end of the century.

In a study published in Fire Ecologyresearchers found the most severe and frequent drought scenario would mean about 310 square miles of forest in the southern Appalachians burning every year in the decade ending in 2100. In comparison, there were around 231 square miles burned in 2016 in the mountain region – a year considered historic for wildfire in the southern Appalachians following multiple acts of arson, accidental ignitions and downed power lines.

“2016 was a watermark year for wildfire; we didn’t know we could have that much fire in the southern Appalachians,” said study co-author Robert Scheller, professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State and associate dean for research in the NC State College of Natural Resources. “Under the most extreme conditions we forecasted, we would have the wildfire equivalent to that, or more, almost every year by the end of the century.”

In the study, researchers used computer modeling to project the total area burned by wildfire in the southern Appalachians of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee in 80 years across four scenarios that differed in terms of drought severity, and in terms of whether drought occurred in a year. They selected four of the most divergent outcomes in terms of drought intensity and timing that resulted from different climate warming models. All of the scenarios assumed high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that could cause between 2 and 7 degrees Celsius of climate warming on average by the end of the century, researchers said.

“All of our models fall under high emissions scenario, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty in how much warmer, and how much drier, the future is going to be, so we wanted to pick scenarios that were divergent,” said the study’s lead author Zachary Robbins, a former graduate student at NC State. “We also wanted to account for the fact that it’s anticipated that not only the amount of precipitation may change, but when precipitation occurs may dramatically change. Climate change is anticipated to give us very wet years and very dry years. Both of those are not ideal.”

Read the full article about wildfires in Southern Appalachia by Tracey Peake at NC State University.