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'Heat... Fire... Disaster': What Climate Change Looks Like

Western US fires are being driven by extreme temperatures, which are consistent with IPCC projections

- Common Dreams staff

People watch a giant smoke plume rising from the Waldo Canyon Fire during sunset, west of Colorado Springs, June 24, 2012. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)“What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer, referring to raging wildfires in the US west, in a press briefing on Thursday. "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."

Oppenheimer, speaking alongside other scientists, argued that shorters winters with less snow, coupled with earlier Springs, and extreme summer heat -- all contributors for the fires burning in Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico -- were also conditions that he and his colleagues at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted would result from carbon-induced climate change.

According to “Heat Waves and Climate Change,” a new report from Climate Communication, a nonprofit science outreach group which, along with Climate Nexus, coordinated the conference call with Oppenheimer and others, the "remarkable run of record-shattering heat waves in recent years, from the Russian heat wave of 2010 that set forests ablaze to the historic heat wave in Texas in 2011 and the “Summer in March” in the U.S. Midwest in 2012" all typify the ongoing trend driven by climate change.Homes are destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs. Scientists say the fires offer a preview into the kind of disaters that climate change could bring. (Photograph: Jerilee Bennett/AP)

The stage was set for these fires when winter snowpack was lighter than usual, said Dr. Steven Running, a forest ecologist at the University of Montana, reports Reuters. Mountain snows melted an average of two weeks earlier than normal this year, Running said. "That just sets us up for a longer, dryer summer. Then all you need is an ignition source and wind."

"Now we have a lot of dead trees to burn ... it's not even July yet," he said. Trying to stop such blazes driven by high winds is a bit like to trying to stop a hurricane, Running said: "There is nothing to stop that kind of holocaust."

Since 1950 the number of heat waves worldwide has increased, and heat waves have become longer, according to the new report. In the most recent years, it continues, "the global area hit by extremely unusual hot summertime temperatures has increased 50-fold. Over the contiguous United States, new record high temperatures over the past decade have consistently outnumbered new record lows by a ratio of 2:1. In 2012, the ratio for the year through June 18 stands at more than 9:1. Though this ratio is not expected to remain at that level for the rest of the year, it illustrates how unusual 2012 has been, and how these types of extremes are becoming more likely."

Dr. Running, quoted by the New York Times,  said that with human-induced climate change, extreme events will become ever more prevalent.

“We’re just upping the odds that wildfire activity is going to accelerate every year with the warming trends we see,” he said.

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