Property values will take a massive hit from escalating wildfires such as the ones that ravaged Hawaii without aggressive action on climate, warns new research.
Global warming is taking an increasingly heavy toll on landscapes around the world in the form of floods, rising sea levels, extreme weather, drought and wildfire, say scientists.
And the values of property where such hazards are projected to worsen are also at growing risk, according to a new study.
A research team at the University of Utah, led by biology Professor William Anderegg, attempted, for the first time, to quantify the value of U.S. property at risk in forested areas exposed to increased wildfire and tree mortality associated with climate stresses and beetle infestation.
Anderegg said: “As a society, we have this tremendous capacity to deal with and minimize, adapt to and mitigate risk.
“We have insurance policies, we have seat belts in cars and airbags. All of these are to mitigate the risk of getting in a car accident or having a fire burn down your house.
“But fundamentally, all these tools to mitigate risk are predicated on knowing what the risks are and capturing how those risks might change.”
He says climate change is a “game changer” because it promises to elevate threats, but we don’t know exactly where, when or by how much.
Anderegg said: “This is a really clear case of where we need cutting-edge science and tools to tell us what are the risks and how are they possibly or likely to change this century due to climate change.
“Climate change is going to drive wildfire and disturbance risks up and is already driving them up. Insurers leaving states like California really underscores that.”
The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found more and more U.S. property will be exposed as climate change effects proliferate on forests.
Anderegg said: “We find that property values exposed to these climate-sensitive disturbances increase sharply in future climate scenarios, particularly in existing high-risk regions of the western U.S.
“And novel exposure risks emerge in some currently lower-risk regions, such as the south east and Great Lakes regions.”
The tropical Hawaiian Islands last week were the scene of the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century after flames rampaged across Maui, destroying an entire city and leaving more than 100 people dead.
Most of the affected real estate is in the Southwest and California, where soaring property values near publicly owned woodlands are colliding with declining forest health and escalating fire risks.
The study deliberately avoided identifying specific areas at risk, but even a casual glance at Western real estate gives an idea of where the trouble spots are.
Northern Utah’s more valuable residential property happens to be located in scenic locales, such as Emigration Canyon and Summit Park, that face severe wildfire risks.
The study examined three different phenomena that impact property values: wildfire; tree mortality from drought and other climate stresses; and tree mortality from insect infestation.
The study projected what may happen during two 30-year windows, mid-21st Century and end of the century, under opposing scenarios.
The team found carbon emission-reduction strategies, if implemented effectively, could substantially dampen exposure.
Co-author geography Professor Tim Collins said: “We looked at two separate climate scenarios, one in which we don’t really do anything – it’s just business as usual, and things get more dramatically worse – and one in which we implement mitigation more aggressively.
“What the results show is that under a scenario in which we actually try to mitigate emissions in a way that reduces impacts of climate change, you see substantially less property value at risk in the future.”
Looking at just privately owned lots one acre in size or larger, about $4 billion (in 2017 dollars) in property is currently exposed per year to wildfire in the contiguous United States, according to the study.
That volume is projected to grow to $22 and $45 billion, by 2049 and 2099, respectively, under the “do-nothing” scenario.
But the study found the value of exposed property tops out at about $11 billion under the scenario in which aggressive climate action is undertaken.
The researchers said that wooded areas can be desirable places to live, but if the trees die or burn, such properties lose their appeal and their market value will erode accordingly.
Collins said: “What’s interesting is that people are drawn to those environments because of the amenities associated with forest resources.
“This is where you’re seeing the high value of these lands, like California – areas that are identified as wildland-urban interface – are some of the fastest growing landscapes in terms of residential development.”
He added: “Under climate change, in the hot arid West, many people, as temperatures rise, are going to be increasingly drawn to these mountainous environments.
“We actually just hold constant current levels of development, and we look at what is the effect of climate change and increased forest disturbance in terms of placing current property values at risk in the future.
“It doesn’t even take into account the fact that more and more people are being drawn to these forest landscapes because of the amenities.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker