Some Colorado temps are increasing at twice the global average, fueling wildfires, scientists say

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DENVER (KDVR) — Temperatures on Colorado’s Western Slope have increased at more than twice the global average in the last 140 years, leading to an increase in wildfires, according to numerous studies and scientists.

A group of counties in western Colorado, along with a few in eastern Utah, make up the largest area in the continental United States where temperatures have increased more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), according to a new analysis from The Washington Post. That increase is more than twice the worldwide average.

Studies show the increases in temperature can lead to the exponential growth of wildfires.

“Fires are very sensitive to change in temperature,” said Virginia Iglesias, a University of Colorado Boulder research scientist. “You might see a tiny change in temperature and you’ll see a very large response in fire behavior.”

The summer of 2020 has been a prime example of that, scientists said.

The Pine Gulch Fire on the Western Slope is the largest ever in Colorado. Meanwhile, firefighters in California are battling some of the largest in that state’s history.

“It’s no surprise that we’re seeing larger, hotter, more frequent fires,” Iglesias said.

For the last eight years, scientists have been tracking the fires’ temperatures from space. They use the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) data that was developed in Colorado, originally to measure the temperatures of oil and gas flares.

“We have noticed that there have been some very, very large fires,” said Chris Elvidge, who developed the technology to detect extremely hot temperatures on earth from satellites in space. He’s now the director of The Payne Institute for Public Policy’s Earth Observation Group at the Colorado School of Mines. “One way that shows up is with saturation.”

The group’s data is all public and used by the oil and gas industry as well as NASA and other institutions to track fires. It’s also recently focused on some of the fires in Colorado and released data for them.

Studies from NASA and other institutions have shown the increase in temperatures – and therefore wildfires – are at least in part, human caused and are here to stay for the immediate future.

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