Scientists Explains How Climate Change is a Driving Force in Northern California Wildfires

View of the Camp Fire from a satellite. Photo: Stuart Rankin

There’s no doubt that many contributing factors went into the devastating Northern California wildfires of 2018 – poor forest management, the regulations forced by extreme environmental groups and… climate change.

That’s right, there’s plenty of strong evidence out there that shows the changing climate’s involvement in these wildfires and a prominent climate scientist has a lesson for you on the facts.

UCLA Climate Scientist Daniel Swain has become a prominent figure on analyzing California’s weather patterns and took to his popular Twitter feed to explain how climate change is not the only force in California wildfires, but a strong one nonetheless.

“If Northern California had received anywhere near the typical amount of autumn precipitation this year (around 4-5 in. of rain near #CampFire point of origin), explosive fire behavior & stunning tragedy in #Paradise would almost certainly not have occurred,” he started in a thread of tweets. He then went on in detail to explain the causes of the fires with scientific explanations and graphics.

“Rainy season has started late this year in California…again. While autumn precipitation isn’t usually huge fraction of overall annual average, it’s hugely important to ecosystems & in bringing “fire season-ending” moisture. This yr, autumn precip was <20-30% of avg.”

“Objective indicators of vegetation dryness and potential fire intensity were at record-high levels for the date this week in vicinity of #CampFire–and would have been very high even for peak summer levels–at a time of year when the rainy season is usually ramping up.”

“Strong downslope winds were a key factor in the devastation of #Paradise by the #CampFire. But strong winds in damp forest simply aren’t going to drive the same kind of wildfire. The extreme, summer-like dryness of vegetation clearly matters.”

“In this part of California, summer 2018 was warmer than any prior to 2014 (4 of the 5 warmest on record have occurred in the past 5 years). Cumulative effect of warmth over many months also helped to dry out vegetation more than would otherwise have been the case.”

“You may notice that warming is part of a strong long-term trend. And it’s exactly what it looks like: California, like the rest of the world, is warming due to climate change. Fire season, along with the rest of the year, is getting warmer.”

“But what about the low autumn precipitation? Is that part of a trend, too? Well, yes: we recently found that autumn is not only warming across all of California, but also drying in recent decades.”

“But what’s causing that trend? Is it just bad luck? While the exact level of dryness in a particular year is somewhat random, less precipitation in autumn & spring–California’s “shoulder seasons”–has long been a projected outcome of climate change.”

“We replicated this earlier finding in work earlier this year, finding a large projected “concentration” of California’s precipitation into core rainy season months in the heart of winter (at the expense of autumn and spring).”

“CA wildfire folks will immediately understand significance of this: rainy months essentially define beginning/end of fire season. Dry autumns, in particular, are risky as they mean that summer-like vegetation dryness persists longer into “offshore wind” season.”

“This is just *one example* of how a changing climate has affected key risk factors during what has already become California’s most destructive wildfire in history. Does this mean that climate change “caused” the fire? No, of course not. But… that’s just a testament to how poorly framed the question of “Did climate change cause X extreme event?” really is. It misses the most essential point: all disasters are compound events, w/many contributing factors. But sometimes, climate can play starring role.”

“Wildfire risk is a key example of this complexity. In many cases, human factors like human encroachment/urban development in high fire-risk wildlands is at least as important as climate change. In other cases, forest and fuels management is also key consideration.”

“This thread comes partly as result of personal frustration & sadness surrounding what is happening in California. Last few years have been very tough for millions of people who have been directly affected by astonishing multi-year fire siege.”

“What is abundantly clear is that we have big, rapidly accelerating problem–both in California & elsewhere. And my point is not that it’s all due to climate change. But we have to start having more nuanced conversations on societal risk. Clearly, status quo is not working.”

“From my perspective as a climate scientist, the increasingly profound changes we’re bearing witness are a big part of reason why. When you just look at the numbers, sometimes these changes seem subtle, incremental. But on-the-ground reality is that they’re anything but.”

“I grew up in California. My family & friends live there. And after last few years, almost everyone has #wildfire story to tell. For some, it’s struggling to breathe in smoke-choked air. For others, it’s nightmarish escape from walls of flame in darkness of night.”

See his entire thread here:

With last week’s winds forcing PG&E to turn off power to nearly 800,000 NorCal residents, wildfire debates is in full swing again. Swain claims the move is probably prudent, but it’s not a long term solution:

There is no singular answer to why Northern California has been decimated by wildfire over the past three years, but it’s clear that climate change has something to do with it.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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