Scientists Disagree With Media Blaming Wildfires on Global Warming

As media outlet after media outlet blame the burning of parts of Southern California on climate change, it was rather shocking to see a headline in Thursday's Los Angeles Times that read "Global Warming Not a Factor in Wildfires."

Maybe this is just another example of how folks should rely on local media closest to events rather than national press members.

Regardless, the Times piece, although it employed climate models to make the case that global warming could be a problem in the future, cited a number of scientists and studies suggesting today's natural disaster shouldn't be used by media to pat Nobel Laureate Al Gore on the back (emphasis added throughout):

Are the massive fires burning across Southern California a product of global warming?

Scientists said it would be difficult to make that case, given the dangerous mix of drought and wind that has plagued the region for centuries or more.

Imagine that: an article with the term "global warming" in it actually considering climate history before the 20th century. Somebody pinch me.

But that was just the beginning:

In a study published last year in the journal Science, researchers looking at Western federal forests found nearly seven times more land burned from 1987 to 2003 than in the previous 17 years.

The analysis mainly attributed this to a 1.5-degree rise in average spring and summer temperatures. With spring arriving earlier and snow melting faster, the forests dried out sooner, extending the average fire season by more than two months.

The study, however, found Southern California was different from the rest of the West, with no increase in the frequency of fire as temperatures rose.

"In Southern California, it's hot and dry much of the year," said Anthony Westerling, a climate scientist at UC Merced and the study's lead author. In other words, Southern California was already perfect for fire.

"That is a fire-prone environment regardless of whether we are in a climate-change scenario," said Tom Wordell, a wildfire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "I don't want to be callous, because many people are homeless and suffering, but if you live in a snake pit, you're going to get bit."

In fact, the history of this region indeed shows an area quite prone to such disasters well before that awful carbon dioxide began expanding in the atmosphere during the Industrial Revolution.

For instance, a January 2003 report from the United States Geological Survey gives readers a reference that none of the national media outlets will bother sharing with the citizenry, as it quite debunks the global warming connection (emphasis added, h/t NBer ahusser):

Written documents reveal that during the 19th century human settlement of southern California altered the fire regime of coastal California by increasing the fire frequency. This was an era of very limited fire suppression, and yet like today, large crown fires covering tens of thousands of acres were not uncommon. Analyzing these historical records, USGS scientist Dr. Jon E. Keeley and colleague C. J. Fotheringham from the University of California, Los Angeles, evaluated possible causes for periods of variation in area burned in a recent synthesis published in a new book on fire and climate change.

One of the largest fires in Los Angeles County (60,000 acres) occurred in 1878, and the largest fire in Orange County's history, in 1889, was over half a million acres. Collectively, the 1920s, 1940s, and 1970s were high decades for acreage burned, and the 1930s and 1960s were low. Explanations for these patterns are that they (1) result from decadal scale variation in climate, (2) are natural cycles resulting from fuel buildup, and (3) are driven by human demographic patterns. The scientists discussed in detail evidence for and against these in the book chapter.

Among their conclusions are the following: Throughout much of the shrubland landscape humans play a dominant role in promoting fires beyond what was likely the natural fire cycle. Future climate change is expected to have a minor role in altering fire regimes on shrubland landscapes relative to other global changes such as population growth and habitat fragmentation. Future fire management needs to take a strategic approach to prefire fuel manipulations and move beyond evaluating effectiveness strictly in terms of area treated. Fire management should consider designing strategies tailored to different regions as there are marked differences between the central coastal region and southern California in source of ignition, season of burning, and historical patterns of population growth and burning.

Think the authors of this piece will be interviewed by major media outlets any time soon?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

Related NewsBusters Post: CNN Searches for Climate Cause of Wildfires, Predicts ‘Century of Fires' Due to Warming

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.