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

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.

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.

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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.

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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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