NY Times Explains Climate Change Drives Record Wildfires, But Fails To Explain What Drives Climate Change

Trends in large Arizona wildfires (greater than 10,000 acres) between 1970-2011. Credit: Climate Central.

The NY Times has a new piece on the link between climate change and the deadly Arizona wildfires, “Experts See New Normal as a Hotter, Drier West Faces More Huge Fires.” Unfortunately, that headline seems clearer than the story.

The Times writes of the wildfires:

Scientists said those blazes and 15 others that remained uncontained from New Mexico to California and Idaho were part of the new normal — an increasingly hot and dry West, resulting in more catastrophic fires.

Since 1970, Arizona has warmed at a rate 0.72 degrees per decade, the fastest among the 50 states, based on an analysis of temperature data by Climate Central, an independent organization that researches and reports on climate. Even as the temperatures have leveled off in many places around the world in the past decade, the Southwest has continued to get hotter.

Yes it is pointless and confusing and not germane to the story to assert, “Even as the temperatures have leveled off in many places around the world in the past decade.” After all, temperatures have accelerated in many other places — like, say, the Arctic and deep ocean.

Statewide temperature trends in Arizona since 1920. Source: Climate Central

Moreover, the Times piece isn’t even written as a story about man-made global warming. It continues:

“The decade of 2001 to 2010 in Arizona was the hottest in both spring and the summer,” said Gregg Garfin, a professor of climate, natural resources and policy at the University of Arizona and the executive editor of a study examining the impact of climate change on the Southwest.

Warmer winters mean less snowfall. More of the winter precipitation falls as rain, which quickly flows away in streams instead of seeping deep underground.

The soils then dry out earlier and more quickly in May and June. “It’s the most arid time of year,” Dr. Garfin said. “It’s windy as well.”

The growing season also starts earlier, so there is more to burn.

“The fire season has lengthened substantially, by two months, over the last 30 years,” said Craig D. Allen, a research ecologist at the United States Geological Survey station at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

Yes, I know, it certainly seems like this is a story about man-made climate change contributing to worsening wildfires. But the Times never explains how humans are changing the climate through emissions of manmade greenhouse gases. Instead, the story veers into a discussion of natural cycles:

The fire potential is exacerbated by the past policy, beginning around 1900, of putting out all fires. Fires are a natural way of clearing out the underbrush. With that natural rhythm disrupted, the flammable material piled up, so when it did catch fire, it ignited a giant fire that burned hotter and wider.

This total-suppression policy began to ease as early as the 1950s, when scientists began to see fire’s role in ecosystems. It was completely abandoned nearly two decades ago.

But in the 1970s, the Southwest entered a wet period, part of a climate cycle that repeats every 20 to 30 years. “That wet period helped keep a lid on fires,” Dr. Allen said. “And it also allowed the forests to fluff up.”

Since 1996, the climate pattern, known as the Pacific decadal oscillation, has swung to the dry end of the spectrum, and the region is caught in a long-term drought.

Those last two paragraphs are the only explanation in the entire piece of why the climate changed — and they omit the underlying warming trend, and the underlying drying trend, both of which are driven by human emissions.

Yes, the Pacific decadal oscillation has an effect over the short term. But the latest science suggests the PDO is in the process of being overwhelmed by the juggernaut of man-made global warming.

An important, though under-reported, 2012 study from the The National Center for Atmospheric Research “strengthened the case” that, unless we reverse emissions trends soon, we risk having a situation by the end of the century where “most of southern Europe and about half of the United States is gripped by extreme drought” a great deal of the time:

[Author Aiguo] Dai’s new work stresses that the drying effect of human-produced greenhouse gases should overwhelm natural variability by later this century.

The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999,” he says.

Now that is a story worth writing about. See also my recent piece “Scientists Predicted A Decade Ago Arctic Ice Loss Would Worsen Western Droughts. Is That Happening Already?”

The Times story does makes clear wildfires are on the rise (at least for a while):

Government and scientific data show that destructive sweep of wildfires covered an annual average of seven million acres in the 2000s, twice the totals of the 1990s. Michael Kodas, who is writing a book on modern firefighting, wrote in On Earth magazine last year that scientists believe that number will rise 50 percent or more by 2020.

But by omitting the key context, the Times leaves readers with no understanding that things are going to keep getting much worse than that if we don’t act to reduce carbon pollution ASAP.

If you wonder why polls consistently show a higher percentage of Americans understand the climate is changing than understand humans are causing that change, you need look no further than the New York Times.

If you want to see how the story should be reported, look at the Climate Central piece that the Times links to, which explains early on:

The Yarnell Hill fire, like other wildfires in the West right now, is taking place in the context of one of the most extreme heat waves on record in the region, as well as a long-running drought. While the contributors to specific fires are varied and include natural weather and climate variability as well as human factors, such as arson, a draft federal climate report released in January found that manmade climate change, along with other factors, has already increased the overall risk of wildfires in the Southwest.

And projections show that the West may be in for more large wildfires in the future. Climate models show an alarming increase in large wildfires in the West in coming years, as spring snowpack melts earlier, summer temperatures increase, and droughts occur more frequently or with greater severity.

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22 Responses to NY Times Explains Climate Change Drives Record Wildfires, But Fails To Explain What Drives Climate Change

  1. Superman1 says:

    “Philadelphia had its wettest June on record with 10.56 inches of rain.” One end of the country drought and heat; the other end, rain and (relatively) cool. On average, great!

  2. Sasparilla says:

    Yes, check out the jetstream here (we’ve had something similar, diving down and keeping the midwest cool, for most of the last 3 months), currently it actually dives over the Gulf of Mexico – this is crazy for July:

  3. Robert Letcher says:

    Media coverage of most disasters these days quickly gets around to mentioning how many people were affected and how much the disaster was projected to cost. In this caae, I noticed that nowhere in any of the coverage of this terrible fire and these tragic deaths was the property value of the houses that those now-dead firefighters died trying to save, mentioned. When i finally did see video of some of the house burning, essentially all those that i saw were LARGE and expen$ive; I’d guess way too expen$ive for those firefighters to afford, particularly after hearing recently from The Science Guy, who reported that richer people tend to be less generous than poorer people. See URL below) I guess those people who lost their houses might have voted against sharing land that their ancestors stole from First Nation people wouldn’t want to share with immigrants, or pay taxes, etc–but still expect to have hotshots at the ready in case fire visits them: money twists their thinking, somehow.
    Here is a URL that reports the price of several houses for sale in Yarnell.

  4. Chesterdog says:

    Joe —

    Do check out, OTOH, this incredible story that ran last night on CBS Evening News, unequivically linking climate change to the Western fires:

  5. David Goldstein says:

    this is quite significant, I think. In this interview the Fire Chief explicitly is asked if these fires are due to climate change and he very explicitly says that there are. On CBS. Wow.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The rich being less generous is one of the reasons that they are rich.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Let’s wait and see what happens to this Fire Chief. It might be instructive. He’s a brave man, but, after all, his firefighters’ lives are at stake.

  8. Robert in New Orleans says:

    The Anasazi Civilization is not the last one that will succumb to drought and disappear.

  9. Brian Smith says:

    A suggestion for the safety of the next fire crew with no way out:

    Everybody carries an appropriately small (& safe-until-needed) explosive device that will blow a hole in the ground big enough to either lie in or crouch in. The reflective cover would then be used only on top of the person and could be a 2 layer thing with an insulating material between the layers.

    30 or so inches below ground it will be cool & heat absorbent on 3 sides and there will be air actually supplied from the surrounding fractured earth. Each man or woman should also be carrying a miniaturized oxygen supply that would last 10 to 15 min.

    At the 1st sign of imminent danger, the GPS coordinates of the fighters would go out to a tanker in reserve for the purpose that would deliver water or whatever is needed directly to them, on them, immediately.

    Design of the explosive for safe carry & effectiveness should be no barrier. If any measures can improve survival, cost, including a dedicated support aircraft, should not be a consideration.

  10. Stephen says:

    “If you wonder why polls consistently show a higher percentage of Americans understand the climate is changing than understand humans are causing that change, you need look no further than the New York Times.”

    It’s not only is the USA; here in the UK the BBC does exactly the same thing. They always tell us that it’s getting hotter, colder, wetter, windier or drier. They then tell us the weather records that have been broken, then there will be a meteorologist talking about El Nina, or the jet stream, or wetter winters and why these kinds of things are not unusual over the years in the UK. Then it’s the end of the article.

    Context? Connection? Patterns?

    I’m sorry, we don’t do that sort of thing at BBC …

  11. catman306 says:

    Sounds like a good idea having some explosives for an instant bunker (as long as they were not heat sensitive).

    I noticed that the CBS reporter was carrying a Fire Shelter as was the official from the fire service.

    (How to use)
    The New Generation Fire Shelter

  12. Chesterdog says:

    Yes indeed, wow!!

  13. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The cracks are starting to appear. This is not the first article on CP that has recorded such instances. Expect more as total suppression of big news is almost impossible, ME

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Same story at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is these days a very Rightwing propaganda outlet, with the usual Groupthink. Indeed the propagandists really don’t bother to hide their biases any more, becoming quite belligerent when faced with Thought Crime or an interviewee who dares to expose their lies and idiocy.

  15. Jacob says:

    Reading some of the comments/bald face lies from the deniers is enough to make my head explode.

  16. Joan Savage says:

    In the 1994 Storm King fire, several of the fatalities were hotshots who didn’t have time to deploy their shelters or even fling their gear away, a part of the routine shown in the training video. It’s shocking how fast a fire fatality can happen.

  17. Actually the rich are less generous because they don’t understand how anyone can “need” a small amount of money — ranging from a few dollars to, say, a couple thousand. If the rich need braces for their kid, they write a check. They can’t understand that giving a faithful employee a $500, rather than a $50 Christmas bonus can make a big difference in his or her life. They’re out of touch with the reality of ordinary people — like that idiotic newscaster during the McCain/Obama presidential debates who assumed that each member of an “average” working couple made $250,000 per year. Or, for that matter, like McCain himself who couldn’t remember how many houses he owned.

  18. If it happens, make sure it’s in the headquarters of some deniers’ think tank.

  19. Spike says:

    If they’s spent 5 minutes on Google scholar they could have found Diffenbaugh et al from 2010:

    “Using a large suite of climate model experiments, we find that substantial intensification of hot extremes could occur within the next 3 decades, below the 2°C global warming target currently being considered by policy makers. We also find that the intensification of hot extremes is associated with a shift towards more anticyclonic atmospheric circulation during the warm season, along with warm-season drying over much of the U.S. The possibility that intensification of hot extremes could result from relatively small increases in greenhouse gas concentrations suggests that constraining global warming to 2°C may not be sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change.”

    Or from Solomon’s classic paper on irreversible climate change:

    “Increased drying of respective dry seasons is projected by 90% of the models averaged over the indicated regions of southern Europe,northern Africa,southern Africa, and southwestern North America and by 80% of the models for eastern South America and western Australia.”

    Lazy, or perhaps worse, complacent and distracting journalism purveying false reassurances.

  20. Superman1 says:

    “constraining global warming to 2°C may not be sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change”. Which is precisely the point that Anderson makes in his papers, and suggests 1 C is a more appropriate target. As we are seeing now, even that number may be optimistic.

  21. AZLobo says:

    Robert, you do not have a clue. You are looking for facts to back up a prejudice. Yarnell is a quite poor town. Are there a few large homes, yes just as in any town in America. Did you even bother to look past the fist listing on the link YOU provided. I am not sure where you are from, but here homes under 100k are rare and usually only in the least economically advantaged or out of the way towns. So our Hotshots died protecting a town the is primarily peopled by the low income elderly and long term ranching and mining family’s. That is what makes them heroes. It does not matter if you are rich or poor. It does not matter if your town is large and affluent or tiny and gripped by poverty. The wildland fire fighters come to you aid regardless. Arizona has it’s problems no doubt, but in a crisis this place is amazing.

  22. Shelly L says:

    Just their title alone infuriates me… A climate-changed world should never be called a “new normal”. There is nothing NORMAL about it! It also implies we can’t do anything about it.