Arizona wildfires linked to climate disruption?
Our team here at 350.org is watching the wildfires raging in Arizona with great concern for friends there. The wildfires have now consumed over 600 square miles of the state. As strong winds carry embers far beyond firefighters reach, it seems like there will be no immediate end to the devastation.
The wildfires are the latest in a string of natural disasters that have been sweeping the United States, prompting many to question the connections between extreme weather and climate disruption. Earlier this month, Bill McKibben published an editorial in the Washington Post encouraging us (sarcastically) not to try and draw connections. "It’s far smarter to repeat to yourself the comforting mantra that no single weather event can ever be directly tied to climate change," he wrote.
What do scientists say about the connections between wildfires and climate change?
Last summer, a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, "Impacts of climate change from 2000 to 2050 on wildfire activity and carbonaceous aerosol concentrations in the western United States," concluded that warming under a moderate warming scenario could result in, "the annual mean area burned in the western United States to increase by 54% by the 2050s relatie to the present day ... with the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains experiencing the greatest increases of 78% and 175% respectively."
Think about that for a minute. A 54% increase of the wildfires currently burning in Arizona would mean another 300 square miles of land on fire, almost a quarter the size of the state of Rhode Island.
Students at Arizona State University form a 350:
A 2004 study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Forest Services Pacific Wildland Fire Lab created a statistical model that predicted an even greater increase in forest fires due to global warming. Their study concluded that by century's end, states like Montana, New Mexico, Washington, Utah, and Wyoming could see burn areas increase five times.
Of course, global warming isn't the only factor leading to increased wildfires. Forest management, agricultural practices, and urban expansion are all important contributers. But global warming is definitely leading to longer burning and more destructive fires according to scientists that study the issue. An 2006 article in Science looked at all the factors contributing to wildfires and concluded that climate disruption was, without a doubt, contributing to the burning:
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.
It's worth noting that wildfires themselves are a massive source of carbon dioxide, which only increases the global warming that is helping cause more wildfires.
Here at 350.org, we'll continue to do our best to keep you informed about the incidences of extreme weather across the globe and the potential connections to the climate crisis. With the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere at 394 ppm, we are already above the safe upper limit of 350 ppm and living in an age of climate disruption. While we may not be able to connect any single weather event to climate change, it's time to start connecting the dots. And more importantly, time to start getting to work solving the crisis.
Please keep our friends in Arizona in your thoughts.