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Hot and Getting Hotter

Mar 01, 2009
By Alan Stoga


 Australian firefighters hold off one of the brush fire, which eventually destroyed at least 900 homes. Photo courtesy of Newscom.

The New Scientist recently reported that Australian scientists are connecting the dots between climate change and February’s devastating wildfires—and those dots could have important consequences for parts of California, Texas and the Southeast.

John Handmere of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre at RMIT University in Melbourne points to research using climate change models several years ago that predicted a significant increase in the number of days when the fire risk is very high or extreme.

One study (PDF) published in 2005 predicted that such extreme conditions would be 4 percent to 25 percent more common in 2020 and 15 percent to 70 percent more common in 2050. The researchers concluded that more devastating fires would likely become common.

But, like other aspects of climate change, predictions of extreme drought have been turning into reality much sooner than expected. Last year, Australia had a record heat wave, a record-breaking drought and extremely low humidity—perfect conditions for the out-of-control fires that hit the country weeks ago. One blogger on the New Scientist Web site described 40 mile per hour winds combining with 120 degree fires to spread through tree crowns at 60 miles per hour. They were fires that literally could not be fought.

Might we see similar conditions this year in the United States?

The answer seems to be, maybe. Even while parts of the country have had an unusually cold and snowy winter, drought conditions in California, Texas and the Southeast are bad and getting worse. According to Steve Quiring (PDF) of Texas A&M, dry conditions near Austin and San Antonio have been exceeded only once before in Texas—in 1917–18. California’s Governor Schwarzenegger has just declared a state of emergency because of three years of below average rain and snowfall.

Already in January, not historically part of the wildfire season, there were almost 2,500 fires that burned more than 57 thousand acres around the country.


Image courtesy of NCDC/NOAA 



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