A Complex, Combustible Landscape

This nuanced statement by Tom Kenworthy, a former reporter, was spot on until the very end (my emphasis):

The reasons that the desert Southwest is having another extreme fire season are complex. They include decades of poor forestry and livestock grazing practices, misguided federal firefighting efforts that have prevented low-intensity fires in Ponderosa pine forests from clearing out underbrush and small trees, and prolonged, exceptional drought caused by climate change.

John Fleck, a science writer for the Albuquerque Journal, grasps the complexity of the fire story, and Andrew Freedman does a superb job unpacking the scorching Southwestern drought in a must-read post at the WaPo’s Capital Weather Gang blog:

The drought was caused in part by La Nina conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which altered the main storm track across North America, helping to steer storms across the northern tier, leaving southern areas desperate for rain. Although La Nina has waned, there are increasing signs that it may redevelop this fall or winter, according to the latest outlook from the Climate Prediction Center.

However, La Nina wasn’t the only force behind the drought, says [Marty] Hoerling, who leads a group of climate change attribution sleuths at NOAA. For now, though, the co-conspirators remain unknown. Although climate science research shows that droughts are likely to become more intense and more frequent in a warming world, particularly in the Southwestern US, observational evidence does not yet show clear trends in drought conditions in the U.S. to date.

Hoerling says his quick analysis led him to conclude that climate change has not played a major role in this event. “This is not a climate change drought by all indications,” he said, adding that this view does not in any way refute the fact that global warming is occurring, either.

Hoerling noted that as average temperatures increase due to climate change, drought impacts would likely get worse. Drought plus heat “is just going to make a bad situation that much worse,” he said, since higher temperatures dry soils out much more rapidly. “We haven’t necessarily dealt with drought and heat at the same time in such a persistent way.”

He said the drought serves as a reminder that society needs to be more prepared for significant, relatively rare events such as this one, regardless of whether they are due to global warming or natural climate variability.

17 Responses to “A Complex, Combustible Landscape”

  1. Dean says:

    So I just read Pielke’s Climate Fix, and though he has long been critical of casual statements attributing extreme events to climate change, wildfires is the one area where he said that a climate signal is starting to emerge in the statistical record. Acknowledging that doesn’t say what role that climate-caused drought plays in it, as there are many potential climate-induced impacts that could cause wildfires (as well as non-climate induced factors like fire suppression). Note that AGW impact on the length of the fire season is a likely contributing cause. Also, heat and drought are not a one-way cause-and-effect. Drought causes heat as well.

  2. David Karoly’s lecture on wildifires at the Oxford “4 Degrees and Beyond” conference (Sept 09) is an excellent synopsis of the climate change signature already emerging in wildfire data. (I think the video version is only available on iTunes (free), but the slides and audio are here.) Just recommending.

  3. Thanks for the plug, Keith. Glad you appreciated the info. And thanks for pointing to John Fleck’s writeup on wildfires, as well. Good stuff.
     
    Cheers, -A

  4. EdG says:

    No fuel, no fire, no matter how hot and dry it is.

    As the first author noted, the intensity of recent wildfires is a function of fuel buildups due to fire suppression. Blame Smokey the Bear, not the dreaded AGW.

    And key to this story is the removal of aboriginal burning regimes. As Keith and anyone with some knowledge of archaeology and earlier cultures, fire was the primary land management tool of Native North Americans. The simplest example of this is California where Native Californians maintained a relatively fuel-less landscape through regular burning while today chapparal thickets create super-intense fires. 

  5. Let’s see, the first author suggests several factors are contributing in a complex interaction, and Ed reads that as saying that one factor alone is the cause of it all. Got it.

  6. Matt B says:

    From the Kenworthy article:
    “What we’re seeing today in Arizona and other parts of the south are what our scientists say are the effects of climate change,” U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell testified before the U.S. Senate last month.

    From the Fleck article:

    Hoerling says his quick analysis led him to conclude that climate change has not played a major role in this event. “This is not a climate change drought by all indications,” he said, adding that this view does not in any way refute the fact that global warming is occurring, either.

    I have no reason to doubt that both Tidwell & Hoerling are both smart guys. Both are smack dab in their area of expertise (well, I expect at least their respective scientific posses are). Both have access to excellent databases, I would think. And both reach differing conclusions.

    Now, how come the extremes on both sides of these climate change questions cannot admit that their idelogical opponents have at least some some reasonable basis for their views?

    [[Correction. It is not the Fleck article containing the Hoerling reference, but Freedman’s post. No big deal. But I thought that should be clear.//KK]]

  7. Matt B says:

    Hey Keith thanks for the correction!

  8. Ed Forbes says:

    “..This nuanced statement by Tom Kenworthy, a former reporter, was spot on until the very end (my emphasis):..”

    “…prolonged, exceptional drought caused by climate change…”

    give the guy a break…if he did not put in this pro forma statement, he might not have got paid.

  9. EdG says:

    5. rustneversleeps writes:

    “Let’s see, the first author suggests several factors are contributing in a complex interaction, and Ed reads that as saying that one factor alone is the cause of it all. Got it.”

    Not exactly what I meant but, nonetheless, the bottom line remains:

    No fuel, no fires, no matter how hot or dry it is.

    Dispute that if you want. Good luck.

    Here’s another one on the same theme (and also related to fire and fire suppression, but I’ll skip that to keep it simple).

    No habitat, no mt pine beetles, no matter how warm winters are.

    Moving to the recent mega-epidemics that have been used as misleading AGW poster children:

    No vast areas of habitat, no mt pine beetle epidemics, no matter how warm winters are. Again, blame Smokey the Bear for creating all that habitat.

    Yes, both these whole stories are more complex than that but the rest of the details are irrelevant without understanding these basic and common sense facts.

  10. Dean says:

    @9
     
    “No fuel, no fires, no matter how hot or dry it is.”
     
    This strikes me as a true but essentially irrelevant observation. Where is there no fuel? It is certainly true that fire suppression has increased the fuel load, but it’s not like there would be no fuel without fire suppression. Nor did aboriginal fires cause there to be no fuel, though it certainly affected the fuel mix. Fire suppression and climate change are combining. Fire suppression leads to fewer but more intense fires. AGW increases the susceptibility to fires.

  11. EdG says:

    10. Dean

    I was just trying to make a simple point.

    The intensity and size of fires are the characteristics that make good AGW poster children, and both of them are the result of excessive fuel loading.

    Plus since AGW apparently causes everything, including ‘too much’ rain, you have just made an equally oversimplistic comment when you wrote that “AGW increases the susceptibility to fires.”

  12. Jack Hughes says:

    I keep struggling with the logic – about causes and effects, symptoms and diseases and causes of diseases.
     
    If there is a period of prolonged drought then that IS climate change. Saying it’s caused by climate change is like saying that the climate change is caused by the climate changing.
     
    We don’t need nuances and new styles of message – we just need some clear thinking. This seems to be missing.

  13. Dean says:

    EdG – you aren’t reading, you’re reciting. Both intensity and size are the result of excessive fuel loading and AGW, which extends the period on the west when there is no rain. Out here, too much rain happens in the rainy season. The dry season gets drier and longer, and the rainy season gets more downpours, so it also can exacerbate the fuel issue.

  14. EdG says:

    13. Dean. OK. How’s this? When there are droughts and there is ample fuel, fires will be more intense. With the kind of unnatural fuel loading we have now, those fires will be extremely intense and destructive.

    No need to bring in any AGW speculation at all.

  15. Ed Forbes says:

    “..No need to bring in any AGW speculation at all…”

    Sure there is…no AGW and you may not get picked up as an author next time.

  16. kdk33 says:

    “No need to bring in any AGW speculation at all”

    Seriously now, nothing bad happens without AGW.  Fires are bad.

  17. Pascvaks says:

    “The reasons that the desert Southwest is having another extreme fire season are complex. They include decades of poor forestry and livestock grazing practices, misguided federal firefighting efforts that have prevented low-intensity fires in Ponderosa pine forests from clearing out underbrush and small trees, and prolonged, exceptional drought caused by climate change”

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with including the last four words “caused by climate change”.  Climate does change.  But, and this is key, what is the connotation of these words today?  A while back “gay” meant happy, today it means something else altogether.  A while back climate meant climate, today it’s an omminus manmade monster out to destroy civilization and the entire universe.  It’s really sad that only some people are gay anymore and climate change is bad bad bad.

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