Those claiming the massive wildfires and clouds of smoke in the northwestern U.S. are part of a “new normal” because of man-made global warming are “seriously misinformed,” according to a veteran climate scientist.
“Some of the news media, politicians, and environmental advocacy groups have claimed that the smoke hitting western Washington during the past two summers are a ‘new normal,’” wrote University of Washington climate scientist Cliff Mass.
“That Northwest summers should be smoke and fire-free, and that anthropogenic global warming has created a new regime of fires and smoke that has never been experienced before,” Mass wrote in his weather blog Friday.
“[T]hose making such claims are seriously misinformed” and are ignoring decades of data on western wildfires, Mass said. He pointed out that wildfires in the northwest were much worse in the 19th and early 20th centuries before modern firefighting, and before decades of fire suppression.
“Those who blame our dangerous situation on a ‘new normal’ solely resulting from climate change, are not only misinformed, but they can act as obstacles to the actions that are acutely needed: a massive effort to thin our forests and bring back low-intensity fire,” Mass wrote.
Well over 1 million acres of western lands have burned up in wildfires this year, including more than 470,000 acres in Oregon and Washington. Much of the area burned is on federal forest lands where logging and other management activities are restricted.
Federal and state restrictions on active forest management techniques to thin woods and clear out brush and debris have come under intense scrutiny from the Trump administration. Officials plan on conducting for thinning, debris removal and controlled burns to reduce fuel loads.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also went after litigious environmental groups using the courts to block government officials and private sector companies from managing the forests. Indeed, environmentalists say the best way to prevent forests fires is to fight global warming.
Some prominent scientists have also claimed wildfires are being made worse by man-made global warming, despite a low understanding of how to attribute wildfires to greenhouse gas emissions.
The Associated Press also tried to link global warming to wildfires by correlating temperature rise with the increase in area burned in the western U.S. since 1983 — ignoring all the data showing massive wildfires in the early 20th century. State-level data, for example, shows that massive wildfires burned in the 1930s and 1940s comparable, or even larger, than today’s fires.
The AP’s simplistic analysis found the “five years with the most acres burned since 1983 averaged 63.4 degrees from April to September,” which is “1.2 degrees warmer than average and 2.4 degrees hotter than the years with the least acres burned.” However, Mass pointed out an obvious problem with the AP’s report — that “correlation is not causation.”
“Warming from increasing greenhouse gases is surely making the situation a bit worse, and its impact will undoubtedly escalate when the real warming occurs later in this century. But today, global warming is a relatively small element of the current wildfire situation, particularly in the slow to warm Pacific Northwest,” Mass wrote.
“As citizens of one small region, there is only so much we can do to stop global warming. But we can fix our forests, improving the fire/smoke situation today and preparing for the greater warming that is undoubtedly in our future,” he wrote.