California Fires: Blame Game

By Knickerbocker, Brad | The Christian Science Monitor, November 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

California Fires: Blame Game


Knickerbocker, Brad, The Christian Science Monitor


The wildfires that raced through southern California have turned up the political and scientific heat about climate change's possible role in the conflagrations.

The United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including droughts, heat waves, and resulting fires. Will this make southern California communities more vulnerable to fires?

Many experts believe such blazes will become routine "because global warming is intensifying nature's cycles by lengthening fire seasons," reports The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Walter Oechel, a biology professor at San Diego State University, who had to evacuate, sees it in personal terms. He told the San Diego newspaper: "The fires we just experienced are some of the first effects we are feeling from climate change. We now have a very graphic representation of what many of us have been saying for a long time."

Europe, too, had a record fire year, according to some reports. A story in The Vancouver Sun surveyed the fire damage around the world starting with Greece and Spain and then noted:"Flames swept through the olive groves of Lebanon. There were serious burns in Cyprus, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Italy. Russia reported more than 14 million hectares scorched in remote Siberia. There were big fires in Australia, too ... in South America fires burning in remote regions left plumes of smoke so vast they could be observed from space."

Still, the overlapping science of climate, weather, and wildfires makes for a very complicated picture. Researchers at the University of California, Merced, and the University of Arizona said in a statement:"At present, the connection between global warming, Santa Ana winds, and extremely low Southern California precipitation last winter are not known with sufficient certainty to conclusively link global warming with this disaster."

In the same statement, these scientists point to research suggesting that the extent of the recent drought may be related to early snowmelt driven by climate change:"Climate model projections suggest that with rising greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere, these phenomena will become increasingly likely in the future."

Others note a combination of trends, including long ocean cycles, which may increase fire danger. Says Thomas Swetnam of the University of Arizona in an article at ScientificAmerican. …

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