The NY Times Blows the Wildfire Story

The New York Times finally did a major story on the record-breaking wildfire season the country is facing. But while the story explicitly examines the causes of the remarkable wildfires we are experiencing, it never mentions global warming at all–even though the cover story of Science magazine last week was on research establishing the global warming-wildfire link, and even though the Times covered this research when it was first released over a month ago.

The Times story points out that the “devastating” Western wildfire season has seen “at least 7.1 million acres burned by late this week, more than in any comparable period in 10 years, federal figures indicate.” About half the story is devoted to various explanations, including a recent shift in Pacific Ocean water temperatures and an intense heat wave in May and June that eliminated some of the snow pack that normally moistens forests in the summer.

The reporter, however, misses the real story. He mistakenly makes it seem like this wildfire season is somehow a unique event, and the opening sentence talks about large individual fires from 1949, 1988, and 1910. You would never know from this article that the U.S. record for wildfire acreage burned was set in 2005 (8.5 million acres), breaking a record just set in 2000.

Nor would you have any idea of the recent research linking this trend toward more intense wildfire seasons to global warming.

But last week Science magazine published a major article analyzing whether the recent trend was due to a change in forest management practices or to climate change. The study, led by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, concluded:

Robust statistical associations between wildfire and hydroclimate in western forests indicate that increased wildfire activity over recent decades reflects sub-regional responses to changes in climate. Historical wildfire observations exhibit an abrupt transition in the mid-1980s from a regime of infrequent large wildfires of short (average of 1 week) duration to one with much more frequent and longer burning (5 weeks) fires. This transition was marked by a shift toward unusually warm springs, longer summer dry seasons, drier vegetation (which provoked more and longer burning large wildfires), and longer fire seasons. Reduced winter precipitation and an early spring snowmelt played a role in this shift.

The study notes that global warming (from human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide) will further accelerate all of these trends during this century. Worse still, the increased wildfires will themselves release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which will serve as a vicious circle, accelerating the very global warming that is helping to cause more wildfires.

But you would learn none of this from the New York Times article. Amazingly, the Times actually reported on the Scripps research in July, in a very brief article that noted:

A surge in wildfires in the mountains of the West since the 1980’s, particularly in the northern Rockies, appears to have been caused mainly by the warming climate, a new study says…. The scientists said further warming from the buildup of heat-trapping gases was likely to lengthen the Western fire season.

Global warming is going to be the story of the century. If we don’t act soon, the impacts are going to be devastating. But we are only likely to act soon if the public is informed of how the relatively small amount of global warming we have experienced to date (0.8°C) is already affecting us and how the much larger global warming we face–perhaps another 4°C this century alone–will do far, far greater damage.

Major newspapers like the Times must do a better job on this story.

6 Responses to The NY Times Blows the Wildfire Story

  1. […] OK. The major newspaper was Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald and the story was about the risk posed to the Australian bush from global-warming induced heat and drought. But I couldn’t resist the headline. And the story makes clear that the increase in wildfires Americans are already experiencing from global warming is poised to become a major worldwide phenomenon. […]

  2. […] The New York Times recently ran a brief but telling article on India’s monsoon season, writing explicitly about the connection between extreme weather and global warming, which they have not always done: The frequency and intensity of rainstorms during India’s monsoon season has risen significantly since 1950, in concert with global warming, scientists report. An Indian climate research team describes the trend in the journal Science and predicts that further warming is likely to raise the risk of floods. The pattern was found by analyzing rain-gauge measurements. Over all, the total rainfall in June-to-September monsoons across central India had not appreciably changed, but more rain came in sudden bursts and less in light showers, the scientists said. “A substantial increase in hazards related to heavy rain is expected over central India in the future,” they added. […]

  3. Rocky says:

    I don’t think Global-warming has anything to do with the fires in the west but the forest debris brush and close trees have alot to do with the fires there are many forest historians out there that will agree with me there are many journals from people like David Douglas’ Lewis&Clark,John Muir,Capt.John Smith and many more. who describe forests that look nothing like the forests of the west that we have today it’s like they want to call a 80ty year old tree that lives to be 500-800 years old old growth thats like saying a 15 or20 year old man is ready to die from old age they say that fire is natural but they don’t tell you that lightning started very few fires before the 1900rds but the Indians started fires every year or so before they were put on the reservations in the 1850tys they hunted with fire they improved there crops with fire they cleared land with fire most of our forests are fire type forests you look at the real old growth stumps and or trees that are left you will see that there are very few per acre not the hundreds or thousands that we see today half of them weren’t dead like today either the fires the Indians would lite kept the insects to a minimum and the dead trees also the debris this is all history and fact it can be checked very easy if you look a library is all you need

  4. David says:

    The current fires in California have nothing to do with global warming. For decades, poor forest management has allowed unprecedented amounts of fuel to build up. It simply reached the breaking point and nature decided that it was time to clean it all out. Hopefully, California will make the changes necessary in their forest management practices that will prevent this kind of disaster from happening again.

  5. Chan says:

    This story tells us that the risk is posed to the Australian bush from global-warming induced heat and drought. More causes to the wildfires because
    the huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which will serve as a vicious circle, accelerating the very global warming. These are help to this problems.

  6. dış cephe says:

    Hopefully, California will make the changes necessary in their forest management practices that will prevent this kind of disaster from happening again.