Global warming might have had a hand in California's recent string of deadly wildfires, UCLA researchers said this week. Climate change is producing "the worst of all possible worlds, and that is what keeps me awake at night," study co-author Glen MacDonald, a UCLA distinguished professor of geography and ecology, said in a statement.
The deadly fires in Northern California's wine country, where blazes of such acreage and destruction had previously been rare, reflect some of the disastrous conflagrations experienced in Southern California in the last few decades. There's a reason for that, scientists now say.
It's no coincidence that NorCal's climate is getting warmer and that it's expected to match current-day SoCal temperatures by the end of this decade. The UCLA-led fire research, published this week in the journal PLOS One, suggests that climate change–driven temperature and weather variations are setting up parts of the West Coast for massive fires such as the ones seen this week in seven wine country counties, including Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino.
"Even more fires could be in store for the future as human activity continues to drive climate change," MacDonald said.
The formula for disaster is believed to be the combination of wet winters, the likes of which California experienced in 2016-17, followed by unusually long, hot summers. This pattern creates plant growth but it also creates perfect tinder after temperatures rise, researchers say.
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They examined historic weather patterns to find that climate change is contributing to these seesaws of conditions. "Today, fluctuation between La Niña and El Niño is called the El Niño Southern Oscillation, and the conditions it causes affect agriculture and air quality, and cause both greater rainfall and more serious drought in the Southwest U.S. — amplifying the risk for wildfires and affecting how cities and regions need to manage their collection and distribution of water," according to a UCLA statement.
Researchers believe that as our climate continues to warm, this wet-then-hot pattern will become even more extreme, particularly in the Southwest.
Julie Loisel, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University who led the research while at UCLA as a postdoctoral student, believes it might be possible to mitigate the fire hazard with "water-resource management" and "flood-hazard mitigation strategies," according to UCLA.
That suggests that we can look forward to more of what we've seen in NorCal this month.