Maybe “what is to come” didn’t work, but “it is here” gets Americans’ attention. 41 heat records have been broken or tied this past week in Western America, with the inclusion of high temperatures and scorching wildfires in areas prominently around Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. People are taking notice, and want to know why this is occurring. Scientists from Climate Communication are ready to give an answer.
Pondering a Link Between Forest Fires and Climate Change
Cross-post from Green, The New York Times
by Kate Yandell
This week, record temperatures and wildfires have scorched the western United States. The National Climate Data Center reports that 41 heat records (6,027 weather stations take measurements around the country) have been broken or tied since Sunday, mostly in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, which is quite unusual for this time of year.
Since Saturday, a wildfire near Colorado Springs has burned over 18,000 acres, and 34 other large fires are still burning in the country.
Scientists taking part in a conference call on Thursday arranged by the nonprofit science outreach group Climate Communication said that while they could not apportion blame to a specific factor, there was agreement that this week’s events fit into a pattern of extreme weather events and catastrophic fires that climate scientists predict will only worsen in decades to come.
“What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton University. “It looks like heat. It looks like fires. It looks like this type of environmental disaster.”
According to “Heat Waves and Climate Change,” a new report from Climate Communication, as of June 18 there had been nearly 10 times as many high-temperature records this year as low-temperature records.
If the climate were neither warming nor cooling, one would expect that on average, low-temperature records would be broken as often as high-temperature ones. In the last decade, high-temperature records have outnumbered low-temperature records by a ratio of 2 to 1.
“What scares firefighters is there are still two to three months of summer to go,” said Steven Running, a University of Montana forest ecologist who also took part in the conference call.
Current high temperatures are partly to blame for the early fires, but so are the low levels of precipitation this year and the lack of extremely cold nights last winter. The low snowpack and early snowmelt have made the forests dry and flammable.
Mountain pine beetle larvae have survived at higher-than-usual rates in recent years because there aren’t as many extremely cold winter nights to kill them, which has led to forests full of dry, dead trees.
Late-summer fires often come to more natural ends, as firefighters collaborate with falling temperatures to slow their progress. But early summer fires are more challenging, Dr. Running said, as firefighters may not be able to count on the weather’s assistance
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