Friday, October 26, 2007

California wildfires: climate change or not?

New Scientist Environment blog: When it comes to disasters, no one does it better than California. So writes The Times of London in a poke at the massages, acupuncture, stress counselling, and lattes offered to wildfire refugees in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium this week.

The article makes an excellent point in contrasting the care offered during natural disasters along southern California's gold coast with one of the poorest parts of the country – any "massages" in the New Orleans' Superdome after Hurricane Katrina's devastation were likely taken at gunpoint.

The winds have "turned a corner" now, but the bodies are emerging from the catastrophe which saw an exodus of up to 1 million people fleeing their homes.

On the environmental side, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker has a nice roundup on the Santa Anas: the incredibly hot, dry winds directly responsible for this and prior wildfires. Basically, desert winds barrel towards the coast in the autumn and winter, when high pressure systems further inland butt up against low-pressure zones closer to the Pacific.

NASA has been flying an unmanned drone over the entire region for the past few days and has some astonishing photos of the smoke blowing straight out to sea.

Yet what I found most interesting about the coverage of the fires is the battle brewing over whether or not climate change was responsible for fuelling the flames.

Researchers from Oregon State University explained on Wednesday how they believe increasingly catastrophic fires are a direct result of a warming climate. They argue that climate change brings cycles of warm, wet weather, followed by prolonged droughts. The former increase the fuel load by allowing lots of thick vegetation to grow. The latter cause it to dry up like a tinderbox ready to explode.

But the LA Times came back a day later saying it just isn't so. They argue – through a pair of studies in Science – that while climate change has already made some areas hotter and drier, this hasn't happened, at least not yet, in Southern California.

Finally, weighed in with a laundry list of environmental groups crying climate change and urged them to reel in some of their spin before they end up looking like their science debunking opponents.

Phil McKenna, contributor

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