How wildfire burn scars can trigger thunderstorms and flooding

By WILLIAM R. COTTON 3 minute Learn

Wildfires burn thousands and thousands of acres of land yearly, leaving modified landscapes which are vulnerable to flooding. Much less well-known is that these already weak areas can additionally intensify, and in some circumstances provoke, thunderstorms.

Wildfire burn scars are sometimes left with little vegetation and with a darker soil floor that tends to repel relatively than soak up water. These modifications in vegetation and soil properties go away the land more susceptible to flooding and erosion, so much less rainfall is important to provide a devastating flood and debris flow than in an undisturbed surroundings.

Burn scars can additionally provoke or invigorate thunderstorms, elevating the chance each of flooding and of lightning that might spark extra fires in surrounding areas, as my analysis with fellow atmospheric scientist Elizabeth Page has proven.


Components contributing to thunderstorms

Three issues contribute to the potential for burn scars to gas thunderstorms: lack of vegetation, decreased soil moisture, and decrease floor albedo—primarily how nicely it displays daylight. When burned soil is darker, it absorbs extra power from the solar.

These elements contribute to increased floor temperatures over the burn scar space relative to unburned areas close by. The temperature distinction can drive air currents, inflicting convection—the movement of hotter air rising and cooler air sinking. When that rising warm air draws in more humid air from surrounding areas, it can produce cumulonimbus clouds and even thunderstorms that can trigger rain and flooding.

Burn scars from California wine nation’s 2019 Kincade Fireplace are nonetheless evident in 2021. [Photo: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times/Getty Images]

In an analysis of a flash flood that occurred on burn scars in Australia in 2003, scientists discovered that the soil’s moisture was low and its albedo within the burn space had fallen from 0.2 to 0.08. To put that into perspective, charcoal has an albedo of about 0.04 and contemporary snow is sort of the utmost of 1. When the scientists simulated these modifications in a pc mannequin, they discovered that if the land hadn’t been burned, simply over a tenth of an inch of rain would have fallen. As a substitute, these modifications led to 1.25 inches and extreme flooding.

Research have discovered that the depth of this impact of burn scars on storm potential decreases over time, however the danger stays till the vegetation regrows.

Using the thermals

Once I used to pilot sailplanes, also called gliders, I typically rode the thermals—upward currents of heat air—within the Santa Catalina Mountains close to Tucson and in Colorado’s Entrance Vary. The perfect areas for catching thermals have been on the south and southwest slopes of rugged terrain, the place the thermals grew to become chutes of quickly rising air.

A wildfire in one among these areas would burn extra intensely due to the swift air currents, leaving a darkish, water-repelling surface with little vegetation behind. With moisture from the Southwest Monsoon that arrives within the area in late summer season, these thermal chutes, intensified by burn scars, are prime areas for initiating or intensifying storm-producing cumulonimbus clouds and flooding.


In these arid areas, plant restoration might take three to 5 years or extra, significantly in areas the place intense fires burned on south- and west-facing slopes the place daylight is extra intense. Lots of the record-breaking 2020 wildfires in Colorado and Arizona occurred in mountainous terrain the place flash flooding on burn scars has been lethal up to now. These areas will proceed to be of explicit concern over the following few years.

The consequences can linger

How lengthy burn scars will proceed to gas storms is determined by how arid the area is and how rapidly vegetation recovers.

Forecasters, emergency responders, and individuals dwelling in and close to wildfire burn scars must be conscious that these areas are in danger each for potential main flooding and debris flows, and for invigorated storms with a possible for heavy precipitation.

William R. Cotton, Professor Emeritus of Meteorology, Colorado State University