November 17th, 2011 by

Wildfires can be devastating. For people. For businesses. For the environment. And what’s worse is their unpredictable nature, popping up wherever, whenever they please. If only we could figure out a way to anticipate their next move. Well, turns out some scientists from the University of California, Irvine, think they can. Or more specifically, oceans can — just another reason to love those vast, blue wonders.

A charred surface remains in the wake of a fire in Roraima, the northernmost state in Brazil. Credit: NASA/Doug Morton

How do oceans perform this amazing feat? By acting as the world’s biggest mood ring. Basically, if the North Atlantic ocean temperature rises by as little as .45 degrees Fahrenheit or the Central Pacific rises by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, severe fires are on the way — in four to six months — for much of the Amazon region. Researchers claim that such a minute shift in temperature causes regional precipitation patterns in the Amazon to shift, which means that the rainy weather synonymous with the world’s most famous rainforests shifts. Soil becomes drier, and fires are sparked.

Based on this new research, scientists have built a computer model to predict fire activity in the Amazon. So far, it works. 2010’s model accurately reflected that year’s fire pattern. The accuracy of this year’s model will be analyzed in the next few months. The hope is that this model will allow enough advanced warning of wildfire threats to enable prevention activities to go into effect. These warnings can’t come soon enough.

Last year, a report in Science outlined that the rate of forest fires in the Amazon is on the rise and that these fires have the potential to release just as much carbon as manmade deforestation activities. Rainforests are some of nature’s biggest carbon users — the Amazon soaks in 1.5 billion metric tons per year on average — but this means, they also have the potential to be the biggest carbon emitters due to natural occurrences like fire and drought and human activities such as logging. By predicting and preventing fires, we eliminate the risk of more greenhouse gases escaping and contributing to climate change.

Now, if only scientists can figure out how the oceans can help predict the chance of wildfires in the U.S., we could all breathe a little easier. Until then, we need to keep on keeping on in our efforts to fight and prevent forest fires. Check out all of American Forests’ resources on this crucial issue facing our wildlands.