It’s summer and you know what that means? Wildfires. Destructive fires in Colorado captured national attention as hundred of homes were engulfed in flames across the state by fires in Colorado Springs, Boulder, and Fort Collins. Images of the fire in Colorado Springs are scary and mesmerizing. Watch the awesome time-lapse video below for proof.
I read several articles in which climate scientists used these fires as an opportunity to tell the public- Look, this is what climate change looks like. Not pretty. Here’s an example from the Guardian-
“What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author for the UN’s climate science panel. “It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster … This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future.” (The Guardian)
And another from the Huffington Post-
“This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level,” said Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”
Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in fire-charred Colorado, said these are the very record-breaking conditions he has said would happen, but many people wouldn’t listen. So it’s I told-you-so time, he said. (HuffPo)
I’m really glad that scientists are pushing the connections between extreme fire conditions and the complex impacts of increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and even happier that journalists are covering this issue. Many of the stories go deep enough to explain that climate change is not just creating hot weather, but also increasing other fire risk in other ways. In the Rockies, pine bark beetles have been able to kill far more trees than usual because the recent winters have not been cold enough to kill them. Warmer weather also causes the mountain snow to melt earlier, creating a longer, drier summer.
As happy as I was to read these stories, they remain the extreme minority for covering wildfires with a climate change context. A study published yesterday by MediaMatters found that only 3 percent of all mainstream media wildfire coverage in the past two months mentioned climate change. Yikes. Obviously, climate changes are not the only factors contributing to fire risk- the unprecedented fuel accumulation from decades of fire suppression policies and seasonal variation in precipitation contribute as well. Over the past several decades, the trend in wildfires is for fewer, larger, more destructive fires. And we definitely need more conversation about why we are seeing these trends.
The thing that concerns me about all of the wildfire coverage this year is that it’s missing some context. The both the total number of fires and the total acreage burned so far in 2012 fall below the 10 year average for early July. The total acreage burned is closing in on average, but still far below the record-setting 2011 fire season. It’s been an expensive year, burning in communities is much more costly to fight and rebuild then a fire in a remote forest, but all of this impressive damage on the news is still only average. Obviously, it’s only early July, and there’s plenty of hot, dry weather forecast for the future that 2012 could still set fire records.
But I think it can be dangerous to look a single year in a vacuum. If we simply say- look at these big fires and this heat wave, it’s totally climate change in action, we take a risk. If next year we don’t have a heat wave or big fires, people might go back to deciding that the previous year was a fluke. Climate change isn’t going to be a straight, annual increase in temperature and fire damage. It’s going to fluctuate, along an overall increasing trend. So while we need to say that climate change is playing a role in scary fires, I think we also need a broad context of supporting evidence, not just one destructive fire in Colorado Springs. If that one fire gets people to care about wildfires, that’s great, but we need more journalists to use that attention to explain the big picture.