We investigated changes in wildfire risk over the 1901−2002 (ad) period with an analysis of broad-scale patterns of July monthly drought code (MDC) variability on 28 forested ecoregions of the North American and Eurasian continents. The MDC is an estimate of the net effect of changes in evapotranspiration and precipitation on cumulative moisture depletion in soils, and is well correlated with annual fire statistics across the circumboreal (explaining 25–61% of the variance in regional area burned). We used linear trend and regime shift analyses to investigate (multi-) decadal changes in MDC and percentage area affected by drought, and kernel function for analysis of temporal changes in the occurrence rates of extreme drought years. Our analyses did not reveal widespread patterns of linear increases in dryness through time as a response to rising Northern Hemisphere land temperatures. Instead, we found heterogeneous patterns of drought severity changes that were inherent to the nonuniformly distributed impacts of climate change on dryness. Notably, significant trends toward increasing summer moisture in southeastern and southwestern boreal Canada were detected. The diminishing wildfire risk in these regions is coherent with widely reported decreases in area burned since about 1850, as reconstructed by dendrochronological dating of forest stands. Conversely, we found evidence for increasing percentage area affected by extreme droughts in Eurasia (+0.57% per decade; P<0.05) and occurrence rates of extreme drought years in Eurasian taiga (centered principally on the Okhotsk–Manchurian taiga, P=0.07). Although not statistically significant, temporal changes in occurrence rates are sufficiently important spatially to be paid further attention. The absence of a linear trend in MDC severity, in conjunction with the presence of an increase in the occurrence rate of extreme drought years, suggest that fire disturbance regimes in the Eurasian taiga could be shifting toward being increasingly pulse dependent.
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