Fighting fire with fire: global impacts of climate change on wildfire mitigation using prescribed burns
Interested in how climate change could impact regional windows of opportunity to conduct prescribed burns and prevent wildfires? This is the PhD for you!
Application deadline 19th Jan — Interviews with supervisors 31st Jan-10th Feb — Supervisors nominate one candidate, one reserve 14th Feb — Formal panel interviews with Leverhulme CDCC LDS 28th Feb-1st Mar
Prescribed burning is a prominent practice used by land managers, including Indigenous peoples, in many fire-prone forests to mitigate wildfires, and in savannah-grasslands to remove invasive species or rejuvenate vegetation for grazing.
Prescribed burning is only feasible during a seasonal ‘window’ of opportunity with moderately wet and cool weather conditions, however in some regions the window of opportunity is shifting or shortening due to climate change.
During the coming decade, it is critical that land managers prepare for climate-driven changes in opportunity to practice prescribed burning, e.g. by increasing personnel numbers to build capacity to conduct burns in a shorter window.
This PhD project will focus on predicting the future of opportunities to conduct prescribed burns by using meteorological data to understand present-day constraints on regional prescribed burns applied by land managers globally, and then using climate models to project future availability of weather conditions within those constraints.
State of the Science
In many fire-prone regions of the world, prescribed burning is the key tool available to land managers for the management of fire timing. The typical goals of prescribed fires are (i) to limit the risk of extreme wildfires in a later period by burning off excess fuels that could become dangerous in hotter and drier conditions, or (ii) to control the rejuvenation of the landscape with young vegetation. Prescribed fires are also seen as a potential method for optimising the storage of carbon in savanna-grasslands by burning early in the dry season when the fires emit less carbon than in later period.
Prescribed fires must be conducted at a time when weather conditions favour a steady fire that spreads at a slow rate and in a direction that can be controlled by fire operatives. They specifically depend on appropriate weather conditions that fall within an intermediate range of the fire weather index (FWI). FWI is a catch-all index of conditions that are suitable for fire. High FWI values are seen during hot, dry, windy conditions that support fire ignition and spread. Low FWI values are seen during cool, wet, wind-free conditions.
Prescribed fires are typically conducted within the low-to-intermediate range of FWI values, representing relatively mild, moist conditions free of excessive winds, which support low-intensity fires that can be controlled by trained practitioners. The precise range of conditions in which land managers opt to conduct burns depends on their expert knowledge of the vegetation and its flammability.
Fire weather has become increasingly frequent and intense at the global scale in the past half-century as a result of rising global temperatures, a changing regional distribution of rainfall, and shifting seasonality of growing seasons. Climate models project that these trends will continue under future climate change.
The impact of climate change on the capacity of land managers to continue their prescribed fire programmes is yet to be assessed on the global scale. Previous efforts to predict future change in the prescribed fire window have been made in only a small subset of regions: the southeast US and Australia. These studies indicate that prescribed fires will become more challenging to apply in the some regions under future climate change., However the impacts are yet to be assessed at the global scale.
Global prescribed burn data from an international collaboration
This project represents an extension of an existing international collaboration led by Dr. Jones, which has compiled a global dataset of geolocated prescribed burns (GlobalRx). Project partners (scientists/land managers) have provided >100,000 geolocations of prescribed burns in 28 countries (1979-2021). The records reflect the decisions made by land managers regarding their prescribed burn operations: locations are determined by priority areas for wildfire mitigation (e.g., proximity to human assets) or ecological treatment (e.g. areas with invasive species); timing is determined by weather conditions.
The student will take a prominent role in the partnership, organising project meetings, relaying results, writing research articles, and presenting at international conferences/workshops.
Project Focus and Aim
The PhD student will take advantage of the new data from GlobalRx to study the past and future effects of climate change on prescribed burn windows at the global scale for the first time.
They will combine the new dataset of contemporary prescribed burns with meteorological data to determine the climatic threshold of prescribed burn windows (during 1990-2021), and then use climate models to predict the future impacts of climate change on the availability of conditions that fall within the prescribed burn windows through 2100.
Moreover, they will combine qualitative interviews with Q-method to understand the perceptions of land managers as to the challenges/implications that climate change poses for their prescribed burn programmes. Climate model predictions will be shared with land managers, and qualitative interviews will be repeated to assess how the new quantitative information changes perceptions of managers.
The project will broadly take the following steps:
- Identify the climatic thresholds of contemporary prescribed burn windows, by combining regional records from partnering land managers with meteorological observations.
- Predict future changes in the duration/timing of the window using climate models.
- Conduct semi-structured interviews with land managers and use Q-method to assess perceptions of prescribed burning in the context of historical and future climate change, and in light of model predictions.
The student will address three research questions as follows:
(1) Which conditions are deemed suitable for prescribed burning in the contemporary period?
The student will extract the contemporaneous fire weather index (FWI) values from the ERA5 meteorological reanalysis (data link) for all georeferenced burns in the GlobalRx dataset, and construct the distribution of FWI values in which prescribed burns were conducted. FWI is a multivariate measure of landscape flammability integrating the effects of temperature, rainfall, humidity, and wind on fire risk. From the distribution of FWI values across burns, the thresholds of optimal, good, fair, and marginal conditions for prescribed burning will be defined and comparisons made across regions/ecosystems.
(2) Is climate change affecting the frequency and timing of weather conditions suitable for prescribed burning?
The student will evaluate how climate trends affecting the FWI have regionally impacted the annual and seasonal count of days with optimal, good, fair, and marginal conditions during 1979-2020.
Therafter, the student will use projections of future temperature, rainfall, humidity, and wind speed from CMIP6 climate models to predict change in FWI through 2100 using established FWI algorithms. They will then use model predictions to quantify future change in the annual and seasonal frequency of optimal, good, fair, and marginal conditions for prescribed burning.
The student will then estimate how the workforce of each land manager will need to change in future to maintain the same level of prescribed burning as in the present day. Personnel requirements will increase as days with suitable conditions decrease.
(3) What risks and opportunities do land managers expect given climate projections?
Qualitative interviews and Q-analyses, conducted via online platforms (Zoom, WebQ), will be used to analyse the perspectives of land managers regarding the challenges/opportunities that climate change poses to their prescribed burning operations. Perceptions of adaptation needs will be assessed before and after the results of the model projections (step (2)) have been presented to the land managers, providing insight into the degree of congruence between expectation (perception-based) of climate-change, and the (modelled) reality.
Land managers in the USA, Australia, South Africa and Brazil will be targeted initially. Actors with diverse roles in land management (policymakers, line managers, practitioners, and Indigenous communities) will be included in the analyses, and the differentiated challenges and opportunities between regions will be explored.
Dr Matthew Jones (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)
Dr. Rachel Carmenta (School of International Development, University of East Anglia)
Professor Crystal Kolden (Management of Complex Systems, School of Engineering, University of California Merced)
Professor Rachel Warren (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia)
- Expertise in programming with Python/R: data carpentry, machine learning, geospatial analysis.
- Geospatial analysis of meteorological data/climate model outputs in Python/R.
- Social science methods including Q-method.
- Support to present at international conferences and submit findings to academic journals.
- Extended visit to UC Merced and to engage with a prescribed burn programme and employ/refine the social science methodology.
- Membership of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
About the Opportunity
This project is advertised as part of a funding competition under the umbrella of the Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars Critical Decade for Climate Change scheme.
Successful candidates will be awarded a 4-year studentship covering tuition fees, maintenance stipend (£15,609 per year in 2021/22), funds to support the research project and associated training. Additional funds are not available to assist with relocation or visa costs.
We anticipate that up to two awards will be made to international students for October 2022 entry.
Part-time studentship awards are subject to approval by the Leverhulme Trust.
This project has been selected for the Critical Decade for Climate Change programme, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Shortlisted applicants will be invited to online interview, to be held late February/early March 2022.
The start date is 1 October 2022
- A minimum 2:1 BSc in any natural science or data science is required.
- We particularly welcome applicants with a track record of using code to undertake geospatial and statistical analyses.
- Familiarity with Python or R would be preferable.
- A passion for studying the environment and knowledge surrounding the issue of climate change is an advantage.