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Did Global Warming Cause the Southern California Fires?

Senator Harry Reid thinks so.

What do I think?

Maybe. But I would first ask: “How much CO2 must we remove from the atmosphere to get arsonists to stop starting fires?”

Here are the precipitation trends in the US over the past century:

And here are the historical precip trends from a weather station in Pasadena, CA:

The picture painted from these graphs is one of a wetter southern Cal. How can this be causing more fires? Well, the annual precip totals aren’t the last word of whether climate change is causing the fires in southern California. The climate in the area has a very dry period which dries out the foliage. This dry period is always really dry as we can tell from this graph:

So really, there is the possibility that the extra precip in the “wet” months is creating more fuel for fires in the dry months. So I took the month by month data and divided it up into two periods, one was before the 1930′s and should show a “baseline” level of variation in precip and the other is one after from about 1980 on and should show us if there are any anomalies in the distribution of precip between the two time periods.

The baseline:

Now the later period:

Note the scale difference along the Y-axis. While it might be difficult to see there are some differences. The later period has a few more periods of great precipitation.

Is it possible global warming has increased the risk of fire? Yeah. But the area has a climate that encourages these fires anyway. Year to year variation of precip is much greater than what climate change has caused over the past 100 years.

We also don’t see the benefit of more water availability in the area. If we could change the climate and go back to an era where there was less precipitation imagine the problems the LA Basin would have getting enough water to support the population. Water would be expensive and heavily rationed. More water almost always benefits large populations of humans (as long as it doesn’t reach “Noah” levels of wetness).

Therefore, is the good of more water greater than the bad of higher fire risks?

I don’t know the answer to that question but I would say simple social changes in how and where people build houses in these high risk areas would go a longer way towards preventing a repeat of this multi-billion dollar disaster than trying to turn the knobs of the climate. Fire-proofing houses and controlled fires to remove excess growth could do more good faster than Kyoto. It would also cost a lot less and keep the benefit of more water availability.

The debate about climate change and how to handle this “generational mission” needs to be free of such “shrillary” and blatant opportunism of human suffering. After natural disasters there needs to be leadership in doing good for the people in trouble. Scoring political points should be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent, well-thought-out, and researched, as always, Marty!

  2. I haven’t commented in a while, but thought I’d jump back in and concur with Leo…Marty, I can’t believe how much research you do for a lot of your postings – it’s awesome. Anything that proves Harry Reid is even more of a dumbass is ok by me! :-)

    -Amanda

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