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.