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May 27, 2004

Burning down the West

This summer, the American West is staring down the barrel of the fifth consecutive year of drought. It’s bad news for drinking water supplies, farmers, fish, and--as today’s New York Times points out--it’s especially bad for forests. Already stressed by a prolonged dry spell and pest infestations, the West’s forests are matchstick-dry:

The West… looks like a bull's-eye - a vast target of high-risk orange with swirling pockets of red where the fire danger ranges from severe to extreme. From Southern California to Montana, technical fire-risk indexes, which measure the energy in potentially combustible fuels like brush, fallen trees and ground litter, are at or near all-time highs.

What’s especially troubling is that the drought and the resulting forest fires may be just a sneak preview of what’s to come. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has worried since 1997 that global warming will induce forest fires in the West.

Of course, scientists can’t say for sure that global warming caused this drought--or any other weather event for that matter. But for years climate scientists have been predicting drought brought on by an array of climate change-related disturbances (everything from low snowpack to warmer spring temperatures). So even if the current drought is “natural,” it’s the kind of thing we may see more of in a warming climate.

This summer, you can monitor wildfires through the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink

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