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Warming Climate Fuels Mega-Fires
October 23, 2007 6:07 AM   Subscribe

Warming Climate Fuels Mega-Fires (11-minute video) 60-Minutes reports. "Recently there has been an enormous change in Western fires. In truth, we've never seen anything like them in recorded history. It appears we're living in a new age of mega-fires -- forest infernos ten times bigger than the fires we're used to seeing."
posted by stbalbach (51 comments total)

 
I found clicking the "Full screen" button (lower right) has a pretty good resolution.
posted by stbalbach at 6:13 AM on October 23, 2007


I hold global warming responsible for everything from slow elevators to the popularity of Dane Cook.
posted by Stan Chin at 6:20 AM on October 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


Could CBS News be any more hysterical?
posted by rockhopper at 6:21 AM on October 23, 2007


Wildfires and forest fires are an important part of the natural cycle. I'd be willing to bet overdevelopment and excessive strain on the water supply due to sprawl are just as much to blame for the extent of the fires as climate change, if not for more responsible. In short, sources please.
posted by potch at 6:24 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


for more responsible

ahem, FAR more responsible.
posted by potch at 6:27 AM on October 23, 2007


something from boinb boing worth checking out.
posted by andywolf at 6:28 AM on October 23, 2007


I'd be willing to bet overdevelopment and excessive strain on the water supply due to sprawl...

These seem to be just as buzzwordy as the blame on global warming.

Overdevelopment: How would having fewer forests result in more forest fires? How would it result in having larger forest fires?

Strain on water supply: There are no sprinkler systems in the forest, nor does rain come out of a tap. What makes a forest dry has nothing to do with municipal water, it has to do with the hydrological cycle. Also, don't forest firefighters get water out of lakes? Are those significantly smaller now?
posted by DU at 6:30 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


At the University of Arizona, Swetnam keeps a remarkable woodpile, comprised of the largest collection of tree rings in the world. His rings go back 9,000 years, and each one of those rings captures one year of climate history.

Swetnam found recent decades have been the hottest in 1,000 years. And recently, he and a team of top climate scientists discovered something else: a dramatic increase in fires high in the mountains, where fires were rare.

"As the spring is arriving earlier because of warming conditions, the snow on these high mountain areas is melting and running off. So the logs and the branches and the tree needles all can dry out more quickly and have a longer time period to be dry. And so there's a longer time period and opportunity for fires to start," Swetnam says

"The spring comes earlier, so the fire season is just longer," Pelley remarks.

"That's right. The fire season in the last 15 years or so has increased more than two months over the whole Western U.S. So actually 78 days of average longer fire season in the last 15 years compared to the previous 15 or 20 years," Swetnam says.

Swetnam says that climate change -- global warming -- has increased temperatures in the West about one degree and that has caused four times more fires. Swetnam and his colleagues published those findings in the journal "Science," and the world’s leading researchers on climate change have endorsed their conclusions.
"Hysterical" is not the word that comes to mind.
posted by edverb at 6:31 AM on October 23, 2007 [9 favorites]


sources please

From the FPP:
Swetnam says that climate change -- global warming -- has increased temperatures in the West about one degree and that has caused four times more fires. Swetnam and his colleagues published those findings in the journal "Science," and the world’s leading researchers on climate change have endorsed their conclusions.
Study links extended wildfire seasons to global warming
posted by stbalbach at 6:33 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Longer fire season. Drier trees. Probably more storms (i.e. lightning) too.

Of course, the conservative Republican nutjob answer to global warming-caused forest fires is going to be to cut down all the trees. We need to protect the children.
posted by DU at 6:35 AM on October 23, 2007


oops.. what edverb said. And this from the people living and breathing this stuff:
"You know, there are a lot of people who don't believe in climate change. You won't find them on the fire line in the American West anymore. Cause we've had climate change beat into us over the last ten or fifteen years. We know what we’re seeing, and we're dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought that's different than anything people have seen in our lifetimes."
posted by stbalbach at 6:37 AM on October 23, 2007


DU: touche. I'm not some climate change nonbeliever, I just really really hate sensationalism.
posted by potch at 6:37 AM on October 23, 2007


Could CBS News be any more hysterical?

Yes, certainly. They could say terrorists are responsible, and are using fire to attack our freedoms. Then they could advocate drastically curtailing those freedoms to prevent the terrorists from attacking them.

On preview, they could also advocate cutting down all the trees, as DU says.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:40 AM on October 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


I just really really hate sensationalism.

Me too, although I'm starting to hate the converse as well. Poorly communicated science != poorly executed science. If Media Outlet O reports that a Scientist S theorizes A and A sounds iffy, the first point of doubt should be O, not S or A.

(A similar point is people who leap on every study they don't like with all kinds of 5th grade statistics "expertise". CORRELATION ISN'T CAUSATION!!!11 DID THEY CONTROL FOR X??!?!1 I'm pretty sure PhD sociologists or whoever already knows about this stuff. Wait until you read the paper directly before dismissing news reports of a finding.)

Not to jump on you personally.
posted by DU at 6:45 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Could CBS News be any more hysterical?

Go away.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:46 AM on October 23, 2007


I'd be willing to bet overdevelopment and excessive strain on the water supply due to sprawl are just as much to blame for the extent of the fires as climate change.

Who would you bet with, I mean, will you be publishing a paper in the journal Science to prove your point? Betting on something that can't be proven is a sensational way of making a statement without actually having to back it up. Sources, please. Saying climate is a factor in wild fires is not exactly sensational or hysterical, in fact it is common sense. This is how ecosystems change, they go from forest to desert through these processes. Of course other human activities play a role also, as discussed in the video, but climate is clearly a major factor (please watch/read the FPP for details).
posted by stbalbach at 6:52 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Consider my kneejerk reaction rescinded with sheepishness. I'd be interested in hearing more discussion of the topic at hand than defending my own admittedly uninformed thoughts. Sorry, carry on.
posted by potch at 6:54 AM on October 23, 2007 [4 favorites]


On global warming: there are those who claim that global warmin g is due to humans and what they are doing to the biosphere. And then there are those who assert that we are not responsible but are just in a cycle. But this is silly. What matters more is showing that we are warming globally rather than simply finding responsibility or denying that it is taking place. Surely we can show that global warming is taking place and then, having agreed on that, look for possible causes and cures. If we are in a "cycle" how long is it to last and does it worsen?

There may well be many possible causes leading to this, from a changeover from hunter gatherer society to agricultural one (huge jump in birthrates) to industrial society. Then, a quick look at simple stats: in 1845, or so, there were one billion people on earth. Today, over 6 billion. We might claim that we have ways of accomodating this growth in people but food aside, everything has been upped as a result: use of land, water, natural resources, and pullutants etc. So Malthus should not so readily be dismissed as old hat.

In sum: a very complex issue that can be dismissed with the typical MeFi sneer or wiseass remarks or it can be viewed as an important issue in need of lots of thinking and working out.

Sometimes, it is good to be old, unless you worry about grandkids or even kids.
posted by Postroad at 6:59 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


What matters more is showing that we are warming globally rather than simply finding responsibility or denying that it is taking place. Surely we can show that global warming is taking place and then, having agreed on that, look for possible causes and cures.

Insufficient. If the answer is that it's just a cycle then the "possible cure" is just to wait it out. (Doesn't make 100% sense, but keep in mind who the deniers are.)

In order to effectively fix the problem, the real culprits must be identified.
posted by DU at 7:10 AM on October 23, 2007


The problem with allowing people to believe global warming is part of a natural cycle rather than caused by human action, is that it then allows people to respond to suggestions for behavioral change with,

"We didn't cause the problem, so why would changing our behavior make it better?"

We did break it. We must fix it.
posted by Reto at 7:16 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


The reason for the massive series fires in Southern California is the record-breaking weird weather. Three years ago was the wettest in over 100 years which created a large amounts of vegetation. Conversely, last year brought the least rain in over 100 years which dried out all of that vegetation. Cue hurricane-strength Santa Ana winds, which can occasionally topple palm trees, but, on Sunday were strong enough to down power lines and you have a really, really bad situation.
posted by euphorb at 7:27 AM on October 23, 2007


DU,

It is caused by overdevelopment, but not in the way you think. People are so enthralled with suburbia that they continue to push development further and further into forested lands. This means that the once-common culling of forests by natural fires does not occur, because property owners freak out and demand that any forest fire be put out IMMEDIATELY so that it does not harm their house.

The result is that the forest never regenerates, and it becomes more packed with dry kindling and excessive tree growth. And that causes the more frequent and larger fires we're seeing lately.

The solution is to let natural forest fires take their course. But that's politically untenable now due to suburban sprawl.
posted by chundo at 7:33 AM on October 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


Three-quarters of the comments on that CBS article are GW deniers.

But here's my favorite comment:

“Global Warming is caused by the planet Venus.

The lunar calendar and more accurately the Mayan long calendar predicts 2012 to be the date the gravity of the planet Venus negatively affects the Moon's lunar trajectory and causes disruptions in the weather patterns on the planet Earth. Known only as, and exacerbated by Global Warming. Though for communities of the time, then dependent largely on agricultural industries, this was known as the beginning of the end times or the apocalypse. The event of Venus's orbit pulling the moon away from us happens every so often and coincides with landmark claims and maps of human survival such as the book of Genesis and the predictions of the Maya.

In order to thwart this new enemy, or threat from outer space as I like to call it, we need to re-engineer the moons orbit back to a position agreeable with life on earth. This should be the sole focus of Global Warming talks and endeavours.

That new bomb the Russians invented should do the trick. Just detonate it alongside the trajectory of the moon and nudge it back into place. Do this every once in a while and we'll have a very nice planet to live on for a long time to come.”


I think he may be on to something. Or on something. One of the two.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:33 AM on October 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


Ya know, even if global warming were all part of this natural cycle of the Earth, wouldn't we still have a impetus to controlling it since it is obviously going to have negative effects on our survival? Humans try to control all other aspects of nature to ensure our continued success--why is it with global warming that people arguing "It's natural!" suddenly want to step back and cry hands-off?
posted by schroedinger at 7:46 AM on October 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


I mean, especially since the very people who yell hands-off on global warming are often the same ones encouraging all the other manipulations of nature.
posted by schroedinger at 7:47 AM on October 23, 2007


Because the most likely solutions will cost them money.
posted by Reto at 7:48 AM on October 23, 2007


schroedinger: I always arrive at the same thing.

It is because this has turned into some sort of "blame game" politically.

Climate change is occurring, and we as humans have an incredibly vested interest in controlling that change.

Whether we "caused" it or not is mostly irrelevant. The only reason to determine if we caused it is so we can stop doing whatever contributes to it to at least make it go slower and give us time to find solutions.

I have always been a big fan of the giant sunshade in space. Basically, have a nanofiber blanket hundreds of miles square assembled in space. Use it to filter sunlight coming to earth in certain areas. If you cut incoming sunlight by only a few percent, it could have profound cooling effects.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:09 AM on October 23, 2007


I heard in one of the recent satellite photos of the socal fires that you can see one of those amazing "Satan in the smoke of the burning World Trade Center" images, it says "Bruce Sterling was right!"


Won't he be pleased. Heavy weather indeed.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:10 AM on October 23, 2007


There's probably a lot of really important memorabilia getting burned in Malibu right now. Thank god they managed to rescue Elvis Presley's army fatigues from out of that castle; I don't know what I would have done if they'd been lost.
posted by Reggie Digest at 8:14 AM on October 23, 2007


If you cut incoming sunlight by only a few percent, it could have profound killing effects.

Fixed that for you.
posted by Reggie Digest at 8:15 AM on October 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Basically, have a nanofiber blanket hundreds of miles square assembled in space. Use it to filter sunlight coming to earth in certain areas. If you cut incoming sunlight by only a few percent, it could have profound cooling effects.

What could possibly go wrong?
posted by DU at 8:20 AM on October 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Basically, have a nanofiber blanket hundreds of miles square assembled in space.

I like this idea. It'll also put all of the birds to sleep.
posted by Stan Chin at 8:49 AM on October 23, 2007


wow. Mega fires sound awful.

The Golden Eagle Hot Shots, website of the firemen who work on putting out those fires with photographs. Fires in Los Angeles, a Flickr set.
posted by nickyskye at 8:52 AM on October 23, 2007


There's probably a lot of really important memorabilia getting burned in Malibu right now.

If I may be permitted a Rorschach quote?

"Good."
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:53 AM on October 23, 2007


What could possibly go wrong?

Cutting down on sunlight will cool things but increase drought. It's excitation by visible light on the surface of water that causes evaporation from oceans and lakes, not heat. There was a pretty interesting episode of Nova about that. We're double fucked because particulate matter in the air has masked the extent of global warming.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:58 AM on October 23, 2007


Stance A: Global warming causes everything! The 50-year flood that was not unusual in my hometown is caused by global warming! My dog's dandruff is cause by global warming!

Stance B: Global warming is a lie! All data on it are falsified by alarmist scientists! I don't believe any sentence that has the term in it unless it says it's a scam!

This is science. It's not about belief or disbelief, all or nothing. It's about evaluating the evidence. Flippant dismissal of all claims isn't skepticism. It's a symptom of a deeper ignorance that masquerades as intelligence.

Stance C: Global warming is supported by the evidence, and we need research to figure out what it will do and where.

In short, sources please.

I see that you rescinded the statement. I expect other people are thinking the same thing, though. So, to people with a similar reaction:

Source 1: Page 2 of the linked article. Thomas Swetnam, the scientist interviewed for the story, studies trees and specializes in, among other things, fire history. As you can see, he has considerable involvement in research on forests, fires, and fire history. But you want to see the data, and I respect that.

Source 2: The paper, mentioned in the article, that was coauthored by Thomas Swetnam. Science [PDF] is a credible source. You can also read the supplementary information [PDF], although the link currently seems to be borked.

The solution is to let natural forest fires take their course.

Yes, fires are a natural disturbance. Yes, many ecosystems need fire because they evolved with it, and bad things happen when we humans move in and suppress what the ecosystem's been doing for a longer period time than we find easy to visualize. HOWEVER, this does not mean that the changes we are causing in fire regimes due to land use, fire suppression, forestry practices, and climate change, are "natural fires taking their course." We're long past "natural" and not. What we have now is varying types of impact. And yes, in some cases we should let the fires burn. But there is no one size fits all solution to this. In some cases we shouldn't let fires burn, and as you pointed out, in many where we should we can't, because a lot of people live there. There are no easy answers. There are only options that well-informed people can choose between. And we need research to inform us about those options.

I don't think this was a sensationalist article at all. I didn't see the video though, so perhaps that was different. This is the kind of stuff biologists talk about all the time.
posted by Tehanu at 9:01 AM on October 23, 2007 [4 favorites]


To underscore what stbalbach and Tehanu are saying, I want to note this: one particular wildfire is NOT an indication of global warming effects, as much as one particular very warm year isn't. What is indication of global warming are the TRENDS. Sorry for capitalizing but, uh, emphasis:
Global warming is responsible for
1) the increased frequency of the wildfires
2) their extended duration
3) the extension of the wildfire season (the time of year when such wildfires are probable to happen)

Not beside the point, land-use, water-use, over ground power-lines are anthropogenic effects on nature and therefore climate. Just in the same way that greenhouse gas emissions are.
posted by carmina at 9:19 AM on October 23, 2007


Oh, and one other thing: wildfire management has greatly improved over the last 10-20 years, in methods, human and technical resources to fight it, so the results in Tehanu's link of the Science paper are biased low, that is the upward trend is much more steeper in absolute terms.
posted by carmina at 9:35 AM on October 23, 2007


Setting aside the debate about whether this is related to global warming, I'm rather curious just how much fire, flooding, drought and ecocide it would take before a majority of western peoples consider enough is enough. Maybe it'd take a long, painful dawning of acceptance, or there'd be a sudden violent snap to attention, or, if past behavior is anything to go on, just a bemused, puerile crawl into oblivion.
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:48 AM on October 23, 2007


BLAH. BLAH.
WOOF. WOOF.
BLAH. WOOF. BLAH.
posted by quonsar at 12:25 PM on October 23, 2007


okay, okay don't bite! I admit it, I had you in mind when I posted next to last comment. You know, Christmas, last century, first girlfriend, very hot, or something to that effect.

I [heart] quonsar.
posted by carmina at 3:14 PM on October 23, 2007


“Global Warming is caused by the planet Venus.”

*dressed all in black*
*piercing hypnotic gaze*

No single object has been misinterpreted as causing global warming often than the planet Venus'. Even the former leader of your United States of America, James Earl Carter Jr., thought he saw Co2 emissions once... But it's been proven he only saw the planet Venus.
Venus was at its peak brilliance last night. You probably thought something other than Venus was causing global warming, but I assure you, it was Venus.
*eerie susurrations*
Your scientists have yet to discover how neural networks create self-consciousness, let alone how the human brain processes two-dimensional retinal images into the three-dimensional phenomenon known as perception. Yet you somehow brazenly declare seeing is believing? Your scientific illiteracy makes me shudder, and I wouldn't flaunt your ignorance by telling anyone that you think anything is causing global warming other than the planet Venus, because if you do, you're a dead man.
*leaves thread driving backwards*
posted by Smedleyman at 3:48 PM on October 23, 2007


Oh, and one other thing: wildfire management has greatly improved over the last 10-20 years, in methods, human and technical resources to fight it, so the results in Tehanu's link of the Science paper are biased low, that is the upward trend is much more steeper in absolute terms.

Tehanu kinda got me thinking, each time we put out a fire and suppress a natural cycle we might be allowing the un-burned stuff to accumulate overtime, thus making all these areas even more condensed and succeptable to catching fire and burning longer in the future...

....that coupled with the fact that this current fire is more of a "perfect storm" scenario which involves higher than average winds and drier than average land. The areas that do burn, however tragic the loss can be, will make those same areas less susceptable to fires in the future, until the regrowth cycle could support it, I would think.
posted by samsara at 3:49 PM on October 23, 2007


I suspect the "we never let the forests burn" attitude of the past umpteen dozen years has a lot to do with the mega-fires. There's a lot of tinder available in the forests, tinder that would not be available if forest fires hadn't been so strongly repressed.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:29 PM on October 23, 2007


Tehanu kinda got me thinking, each time we put out a fire and suppress a natural cycle we might be allowing the un-burned stuff to accumulate overtime, thus making all these areas even more condensed and succeptable to catching fire and burning longer in the future...

Yes, the article says that, actually.

I suspect the "we never let the forests burn" attitude of the past umpteen dozen years has a lot to do with the mega-fires. There's a lot of tinder available in the forests, tinder that would not be available if forest fires hadn't been so strongly repressed.

It makes that point, too.

....that coupled with the fact that this current fire is more of a "perfect storm" scenario which involves higher than average winds and drier than average land. The areas that do burn, however tragic the loss can be, will make those same areas less susceptable to fires in the future, until the regrowth cycle could support it, I would think.

That part's less clear. These are, as you mentioned, fires different from what was seen historically in the area. Add a longer fire season to the mix, and it seems very likely that the effects that the current fires will have on future regrowth and susceptibility to fires will be unprecendented. The current fires are burning species that normally survive, for example:

"The Ponderosas are able to withstand the low severity fires where you get flames of maybe one to two or three feet high. But now the behavior of these fires is off the scale," Swetnam says.

Asked how much things have changed, Swetnam tells Pelley, "Well, we're seeing century-old forests that had never sustained these kinds of fires before, being razed to the ground."


And the soil is also changing in ways that did not happen with the more typical, historical fires:

"We used to have forest soil here that might have been this deep," he says, indicating about a foot of depth, "but now we're just down to rock."

"So you're down to mineral and sort of a rock, sort of armored soil. And that is not a good habitat for trees to re-establish," Swetnam says.


In summary, the predictions of the experts are not good:

"Where do you think all this is headed?" Pelley asks,

"As fires continue to burn, these mega-fires continue to burn, we may see ultimately a majority, maybe more than half of the forest land converting to other forest, other types of ecosystems," Swetnam says.

posted by Tehanu at 9:33 AM on October 24, 2007


Remember when I said They could say terrorists are responsible, and are using fire to attack our freedoms?

Somebody did say it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:44 AM on October 24, 2007


"Mega-fires...

...forest infernos ten times bigger..."

Then surely they're deca-fires?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:34 PM on October 24, 2007


White House edits CDC climate testimony
posted by homunculus at 4:04 PM on October 24, 2007


Thanks homunculus, had not seen this. It seems another over-zealous intern is doing his/her job well!

Soon, "censored by the government x times" will be, like, Web of Science index.
posted by carmina at 5:47 PM on October 24, 2007


Beck Blames California Wildfires On The ‘Damn Environmentalists’
posted by homunculus at 12:48 PM on October 25, 2007


Beck's a freakin' Scientologist. It's not like he knows his ass from a hole in the ground, let alone the least damn thing about forests. What an asshole.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:07 PM on October 25, 2007


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