NASA scientist: Climate just one factor in wildfires

July 6, 2012 By Alan Buis
While much of the national focus in the early summer of 2012 has been on the destructive wildfires in Colorado, as of July 3, 2012, dozens of major wildfires were burning across the western United States, including six in Montana alone, according to the interagency fire incident information system, InciWeb. On July 2, 2012, the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft passed over the Horse Creek Fire and much larger Ash Creek Fire Complex in southeastern Montana, to the east of Billings. Credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team

( -- It's shaping up to be a fiery summer across the United States. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of July 3, 45 large active wildfires are currently burning in 15 states. Combined, these fires have scorched nearly three-quarters of a million acres. Since January 1, wildfires have burned nearly 2.2 million acres across the country, including devastating blazes in Colorado and New Mexico. We asked JPL Climatologist Bill Patzert to discuss the recent wildfire outbreak and whether climate change is playing a role.

Q: The U.S. wildfire season is off to an active start. What factors have contributed to the recent rash of blazes?

Patzert: Across the West, out-of-control this summer have left a heartbreaking path of destruction. The primary condition that triggered these fires was an unusually dry and warm La Nina winter and spring. These conditions primed the Western U.S. for an incendiary summer. The arrival of a persistent, scorching high-pressure system over the Western and Central U.S. just exacerbated already dangerous conditions, which reached a tipping point when strong, gusty winds sent these fires rampaging across the landscape. From New Mexico to Colorado and many other states, out-of-control wildfires are still burning through forests, and destroying neighborhoods.

Q: We have wildfires in the U.S. every year, yet in the past couple of years in particular they've been especially destructive. Has something changed?

Patzert: In the West, these great fires have written our history. For those of us in Southern California, the memories and scars from the 2009 Station fire, which leveled more than 200 square miles [518 square kilometers] in Los Angeles County, are still fresh. A decade before this year's devastating fires in Colorado, they had the 2002 Hayman fire, the largest in Colorado's recent history. But what's really changed in recent years is that there are more and more people building and living at the urban/wildland interface, so the human impact is greater every time these great fires erupt.

Q: Many people are trying to link these recent wildfires to . What's your take on that?

Patzert: There is concern that climate change is somewhat to blame for these great western fires. Are rising temperatures and shifts in rainfall and snowfall patterns anticipated from human-induced climate change happening? Absolutely, but it's important to remember that natural shifts in our climate have and will continue to give us a wild ride. In the West, drought, heat waves and great fires are our history. Looking to the future, the uncertainties of human-influenced climate change will play a stronger and stronger role, and rewrite our fiery history.

Explore further: Future fire -- still a wide open climate question

Related Stories

Future fire -- still a wide open climate question

July 7, 2011

How the frequency and intensity of wildfires and intentional biomass burning will change in a future climate requires closer scientific attention, according to CSIRO's Dr Melita Keywood.

NASA satellites see wildfires across Colorado

June 26, 2012

Nearly half of the United States' airborne fire suppression equipment was operating over Colorado on June 25, 2012, CNN reported, as tens of thousands of acres burned. Fires raged in southwestern Colorado, northeastern Colorado, ...

New Image of Raging California Wildfires

October 23, 2007

NASA satellites continue to capture remarkable new images of the wildfires raging in Southern California. At least 14 massive fires are reported to have scorched about 425 square miles from north of Los Angeles to southeast ...

Russia battles fires in Siberia, Far East

May 23, 2011

Russia is battling wildfires spreading across Siberia and the Far East, with officials scrambling to prevent a disastrous repeat of last year's deadly blazes, the emergencies ministry said on Monday.

Recommended for you

Supervolcanoes: A key to America's electric future?

August 16, 2017

Most of the lithium used to make the lithium-ion batteries that power modern electronics comes from Australia and Chile. But Stanford scientists say there are large deposits in sources right here in America: supervolcanoes.

Greenland ice flow likely to speed up

August 16, 2017

Flow of the Greenland Ice Sheet is likely to speed up in the future, despite a recent slowdown, because its outlet glaciers slide over wet sediment, not hard rock, new research based on seismic surveys has confirmed. This ...

Climate change will cut crop yields: study

August 15, 2017

Climate change will have a negative effect on key crops such as wheat, rice, and maize, according to a major scientific report out Tuesday that reviewed 70 prior studies on global warming and agriculture.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.1 / 5 (19) Jul 06, 2012
I have seen NO evidence of human-induced climate change. OUr climate is well within the statistical variability to be expected. One of the big contributors to the recent big fires is out not managing our forests and leaving them to nature. Mother nature will burn them down if we don't use them. That is how she starts over.
2.6 / 5 (9) Jul 06, 2012
Don't feed the trolls.

Badly written article, cherry-picking Patzert to equivocate on AGW.

"With the studys results verifying previous findings, Muller said it is time for politicians to move into a dialogue about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Many of us believe we have to switch from our fossil fuel addiction to renewable energy sources, and green not only our homes but our country, Patzert said. If we do rid ourselves of fossil fuels and go to renewable energy, we might get hit in the head with a ping pong ball rather than a bowling ball." http://www.dailyc...y-study/ 2011.
3.6 / 5 (9) Jul 06, 2012
Global temperatures on the rise, melting polar ice caps, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, warming oceans, changes in ocean salinity, changes in ocean temperature, more violent and unusual weather, the ongoing desertification of the central u.S.

Yes, you see absolutely no climate change at all.

"I have seen NO evidence of human-induced climate change." - FullNappy


1.4 / 5 (9) Jul 07, 2012
45 fires burning 750,000 acres in the US, how much CO2 did that put out? How about the fires in other countrys? How about volcanos? life on land and in the sea and lakes? Do we really know? We only guess. Get close to one forest fire and watch it and then try and say that human activity puts out more CO2 in a year than it will. It is time to stop blindly repeating and think outside the box.
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 07, 2012
Surely the real culprit is hot weather?
1 / 5 (7) Jul 07, 2012
"But what's really changed in recent years is that there are more and more people building and living at the urban/wildland interface, so the human impact is greater every time these great fires erupt."

Plus, every fire that gets going is stopped if possible. Which means the dry waste of a forest builds up over time and acts like kindling for a campfire. Then the fire is hard to stop because it burns hotter than a fire without so much kindling. Its hard to burn a living tree, but a nice layer of dry material gets the fire going even hotter.

Forest fires are natural. Lightning happens.
5 / 5 (6) Jul 07, 2012
Are rising temperatures and shifts in rainfall and snowfall patterns anticipated from human-induced climate change happening? Absolutely!

No doubt in my mind it's cause and effect. The end result of Anthropogenic global warming. A summer time heat wave not seen since the depression era 1936 drought.
5 / 5 (6) Jul 07, 2012
It certainly is. In part. Average temperatures are expected to be on average 4'F to 6'F warmer than today by 2100. And then warming by another 10'F to 14'F in the years to come even if CO2 emissons are halted on the date 2100.

"Surely the real culprit is hot weather?" - Gregor1

Good luck with that.
5 / 5 (7) Jul 08, 2012
I have seen NO evidence of human-induced climate change.

A majority of the scientific community disagrees with your assessment (note that the following references are just a short list, focusing solely on oceans; a complete one would easily span the length of a monograph):

P. J. Gleckler, et al., "Human-induced global ocean warming on multidecadal timescales", Nature Clim. Change 2: 524-529, 2012.
J. Lyman, et al., "Robust warming of the global upper ocean", Nature 465: 334-337, 2010.
C. Domingues, et al., "Improved estimates of upper-ocean warming and multi-decadal sea-level rise", Nature 453: 1091-1094, 2008.
D. W. Pierce, et al., "Anthropogenic warming of the oceans: Observations and model results", J. Clim. 19: 1873-1900, 2006.
T. Barnett, et al., Penetration of human-induced warming into the world's oceans", Science 309: 284-287, 2005.
T. Barnett, et al., "Detection of anthropogenic climate change in the world's oceans", Science 292: 270-274, 2001.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.