May 05, 2016

Alberta Fires

The Alberta fires, which has resulted in the evacuation of Fort McMurray,  are extremely unusual this early in the warm season.  On Monday, the fires were quite evident on the NASA MODIS high resolution imagery (see below).  You will notice there are several smoke plumes from multiple fires.

A close up from the Fort McMurray fires today is quite impressive, with dense smoke moving to the southeast.

The fires were set up by very dry conditions, as illustrated by the percent of normal precipitation during April (see below).  Some locations in the fire are had less than 25% normal precipitation.

And temperatures in the same area were 3-5C  (5-9F) above normal.
The proximate cause of all this warmth and dryness?   Here is the pressure (height) anomaly for the last 3 months in the midtroposphere (500hPa). You will notice very strong, small-scale, persistent area of high pressure (red color).   The same ridge that gave us a wet winter and warmth.
Why was the ridge there?  At this point it appears to be natural variability, but perhaps someone may find a connection with human forcing.  But that connection does not exist today.  

El Nino (which is a natural cycle) could have contributed as well.  This year was one of the strongest El Ninos on record, and such events are highly correlated with warmer and drier conditions across the Canadian prairies.

The slow warming of the planet due to global warming from anthropogenically increased greenhouse gases surely made a modest contribution, but clearly natural processes did the heavy lifting setting up this event.  How do we know this?   Here is the springtime  temperature trend over the past 50-years from the excellent Goddard Institute of Space Studies surface temperature web site.  The Alberta area has had only a modest warming, roughly -.2-.5C.  This is much smaller that the observed anomaly of the past few months.   Much larger warming was observed over the Arctic, much of that associated with human forcing.

Finally, there is one other important element.   Suppression of fires over the years that has led to a very mature forest ready to explode.  So human mismanagement of the boreal forest is a major element in this situation.


  1. Cliff, does it make sense that as the planet warms the increase in temperature difference from the ice locked at the North Pole from a historically cooler past vs the increased temperature in the remainder of the earth would lead to a constant airflow from cool to warm, pole to south? Like ice melting in a cup. And then the air and new cool released water would follow land masses and natural oceanic flows with certain new cool pockets of melting ice. These new routine currents from the north could follow a fairly typical pattern that may lead to more pronounced locking of weather patterns? Perhaps once the planet has stabilized and ice at the poles had reached a new steady state the de-amplification of the jet stream you've mentioned in computer models will become true, but during the time of melting ice certain patterns will be more likely causing average temperature changes to be expected by region? What do you think?

  2. This is a link to Jeff Masters and Bob Henson:

    Their post is an infinitely more sophisticated, nuanced, scientific and accurate assessment about the link between extreme weather events and climate change like temperatures 30 degrees higher than average that contribute to the likelihood of catastrophic fires like the one at Fort McMurray (along with many other factors).

    Masters and Henson, who was the head of communication for NCAR for a couple of decades, draw on the latest science from the world's leading atmospheric scientists, whose mandate is to look at the truly big picture globally. They're drawing on the work of hundreds of the world's best atmospheric scientists, and don't quote one graduate student who they have influenced themselves.

    The overly-simplistic, two word response that naturally variability is all or most of the equation does a great injustice to complex questions that deserve infinitely greater thought and study than is given here.

    1. Thank you for the link. This post is another reminder that Cliff Mass is a *weather* scientist, not a climate scientist.

  3. Please stop trying to link this forest fire to global warming. The region that is currently burning is a boreal forest that has evolved to thrive in an environment prone to cyclical forest fires. The pinecones of the trees are activated by the intense heat of a forest fire, opening and sprouting once the fire has consumed the forest above. The only hand humans had in this disaster is decades of fire suppression, leading to a buildup of fuel in the form of thicker trees, a denser forest and a thick carpet of pine needles on the ground. Fire breaks weren't being maintained as they should have been, and cuts to the provincial fire fighting budget likely didn't help.

  4. "Why was the ridge there? At this point it appears to be natural variability, but perhaps someone may find a connection with human forcing. But that connection does not exist today."

    In two recent posts you continue to be dismissive of a connection between climate change and changes in the waviness of the jet stream. I do think the science is not settled, but you offer the unpublished work of your unnamed graduate student as proof enough that a warming arctic is not causing a slowed and wavy jet stream. Meanwhile numerous published papers by Jennifer Francis and others continue to document and explain this connection and a quick search indicates that this theory is gaining and not losing credibility. You don't even mention this growing body of research in your discussion... as if it did not even exist.

    I would think a scientist of your stature would be more even-handed in your reporting of this theory.

  5. "The slow warming of the planet" seems to be a curious choice of words. Slow to us, I guess but then we are only being slapped in the face with little guppies right now. The big tuna's we will be leaing for our children!

  6. Bruce kay ...yes...the big stuff is later in the century.. That is what all the climate models suggest...
    Bill Reiswig... the Jennifer Francis wavy jet stream hypothesis has been thoroughly disapproved by a number of papers in the peer-reviewed literature. See my previous blogs on that.


    1. Fast forward to 2017:

  7. @Benson, "30 degrees higher" Your comment is fluff. A scientist saying that temps are 30 degrees higher than normal is not talking about climate but weather and those people are meteorologists.

    Alberta and the surrounding area have been most heavily impacted by natural variations of precipitation, winds, humidity but mostly by a major build up in highly flammable ground materials and aged forests. The forests in Alberta have evolved around fire and reproduce because of fire. The last 40 years of fire surpression/prevention without the necessary control burns have brought this situation to hand.

    It is man's hand at:
    fire suppression
    ignorance of boreal forest life cycles
    lack of funds to manage such a large area

    Climate has no part in this and you will NOT find any scientific papers publish that will 'prove your contentions'.

    The article quotes one paper on the 'detectable' signature of climate in fire season from 2004 which has been shown to be weakly mathematically sound. And even their level of detectability I leave it to you to read and DISCOVER what that means!

    Your use of Nuanced is quite bogus as well. They state clearly "All of these cofactors make it more difficult to draw a straight line from climate change to specific wildland fires." They are trying HARD to connect it knowing that vast numbers of alarmist want the connection. There is no Nuance there. This desire to attribute terrible harm to human activity so we can call it out and correct it is a real economic disaster. The repetitive nature of alarmists unfortunately has garnered reasonably smart people to their cause and hence is making it difficult to get to the real issues.

    Wildfires like this will continue to occur and will frequently impact human activity and cities and until we actually learn to understand the past. These fire have occurred for so long that they are measured in GEOLOGICAL time and not human time.

    And in addition, this crying of climate's hand was/is totally expected. Just like when the next hurricane hits the US we will hear it again even though we are way PAST DUE, they will scream climate, they will scream extra damages, when in fact it is expected.

    As to this fire. Read some of the Alberta fire commissions reports made over 4-5 years ago stating unequivocally: this WILL happen. We are enhancing the chances of deadly fire by fire prevention, having large population area near the forests WITHOUT taking measures to reduce the black spruce materials and lastly, in general we have to be prepared to evacuate as we CAN'T stop the burns they will happen and they are very costly to manage/contain and we don't have the proper resources put to address this.

    Here is a link to the Canadian National Fire Resource and Canadian fires have been well researched. The increased/decrease of fires over time is completely within the limits of effects of logging, fire management, human interaction and weather cycles. In addition, since forests take 1/2 century to mature our data on fires within North American need another 150 years of good data to be properly understood.

  8. Pete:

    With all due respect, no scientist worthy of the name or respect says things like "the only hand humans had in this disaster is" X or Y or whatever you happen to know something about.

    A true scientist knows that there are many Xs and Ys they don't know about, that other scientists do know about.

    Here are five links where the topic of climate change and fires like the Fort McMurray fire are being vetted by experienced science writers quoting many of the best experts on the subject.

    None are as certain nor as dismissive as you and Cliff are. Here they are:

  9. It's easy to apply standards to the boreal forest that many of us apply to temperate forests. I've even seen people talk about the boreal forest as "ancient wilderness", which implies old trees.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. The boreal forest requires disease, insects, natural disasters and, more than anything, fire to stay healthy. Massive wildfires SHOULD sweep the boreal forest periodically, as they largely do in Siberia. Every year, the fires there cover unimaginably large areas.

    Canada, like the US, has been foolish in trying to suppress forest fires, not to mention placing cities and homes inside the forest, so when the opportunity strikes (warmer, drier, etc) then it's going to burn with special ferocity. The trees in so many areas are overdue for burning.

    The problem here is the presence of a modern city of 100,000 people in the boreal forest.

    Whether AGW has contributed to the warmer, drier is mostly irrelevant. The forest will eventually burn either way, and any anthropogenic resources that are in the way are going to burn too.

    None of which diminishes the tragedy to people's dwellings and jobs when it burns a city. Not to mention the potential loss of life and injuries. But all of us who live in and around forests have to accept that fire is a natural forest process, more so in the boreal forest than any other.

    Turning this into the latest poster child for AGW is simply ignorance. Or worse.

  10. It is the timing, not the location, intensity, type of forest, fire suppression, etc that makes this fire unusual. They are in early May when there should still be snow on the ground and instead they are having temperatures reaching 90 degrees which they don't usually see until July and August.

  11. Richard,

    Saying "the only human hand in this disaster is X" is an acceptable rhetorical device in the context of a comment thread on a blog post. As a screenwriter, you are probably more familiar with rhetorical devices than with science. You even used such a device yourself when you said "[t]heir post is an infinitely more sophisticated, nuanced, scientific and accurate assessment."

    Speaking of which, you seriously lost credibility with that claim. The closest that particular blog post got to rigorous analysis was citing a paper more than ten years old that claimed to find a detectable (but insignificant) relationship between AGW and forest fires.

    Yes, it is possible to show a relationship between AGW and weather events. However, the relationship is small. Well meaning people have a tendency to exaggerate this relationship in order to drive the political process, but it is not an accurate representation of the science. Just because something is predicted to happen in the future does not mean we should claim it is happening now, even if that thing is really bad and making such claims will help us avoid it.

  12. John:

    You might want to discuss the science mentioned in the five links I provided.

    Failure to connect thousands of dots about dramatic change relating to global warming - and also in each case many other factors - is simply ignorance. Or worse.

    You might enjoy the book and documentary "Merchants of Doubt." Then again, you might not.

    "Merchants of Doubt" is about an extremely well-documented, concentrated effort by industries, corporations and individuals worth trillions to billions each to deny climate change in every way they can, and that cake is frosted by the wishful thinking and denial of individuals.

    The scientists and those who listen to them might occasionally make small mistakes like hyperbole and exaggeration in certain small, limited areas, but that is like jaywalking compared to genocide.

  13. One of the most insidious heuristics humans fall prey to is risk aversion. This seems counterintuitive at first because to be risk averse seems to be prudent. However, we are prrudent only with risk associated with our current assets, not our future potential. This is why (one reason anyway) people discount future risk irrationally - to circle the wagons around what we got right now.

    I posted previously a Youtube form Gerd Gigerenzer, a cognitive psychologist foorm the Max Planck institute, who's main gig is risk. It is totally worht googling him for some good videos (and books) on both our illusions of risk and very practical solutions for better framing risk, even very dificult risks such as climate change

  14. Cliff, please ignore the crazies. Keep up the good work!

  15. This year spring is way behind in eastern Ont and around Lake Nipissing region. In eastern Ontario had freezing nights all in a row last week, needed the wood stove and a re-lit in the am. Birds are back but the snow gees aren't leaving just yet. Latest I've seen them. Woodland trilliums are just starting to peek up, normally they'd be done by now. Frogs are a month late, but they are at the stream at nights finally, nice to hear them. Willows are showing green so hopefully we'll see leaves on the other trees soon, as they're still in small bud mode.
    The blue heron in our steam is back, but not the hummers. Hardly any flowers in bloom outside of a few dandelions. Good news is our south facing septic field is housing hundreds & hundreds of ground bees - the natural ones from this region. We're thrilled. Not very active in sunny but 6-7c days but they were trying out their wings it seemed- hopefully they'll get nectar and the pollen they need soon.
    The smoke from this fire is no more than any typical small volcano that this globe tolerates very well.
    Our heats are with those who lost everything. Same those in charge didn't handle this right from the start including cutting this budget so drastically. Saved a nickle to spend a dollar now.

  16. Ops, forgot my link that shows this isn't due to 'global warming' as these data sets kinda prove.

    Got a fiver on this end that this and my other comment wont get published.

  17. I think you meant to say the warming experienced is in the range -.2°C - .5 rather than -2 - .5?

  18. Bruce, there's a good reason why humans are risk adverse to the future. Some unknown future. It would be irrational to live too far in to the future just as it is irrational to live in the past. We can only act in the present.

    And, resources are limited and are always a function of technology. It is entirely possible, in fact I would say quite likely that we will discover new sources of energy, transportation, and other mind blowing technology in the next 50 years. All we need to do is look to what technology and quality of life was like just 50 or 100 years ago versus today. And it's near certain that the problems of tomorrow will be different than what we expect them to be today.

    The reason why climate alarmists are called alarmists is that alarm denotes an immediate call to action. But there is no certain specific known corrective action for the future nor certain climate alarm in the present. The sea level has changed a few millimeters. The average temperature a degree. No rational person would put the obvious risks that confront them each day in the present aside for an alleged alarm far in to the future. And in many cases long after they are dead and gone, especially when the trajectories of the alleged alarm consistently show not to be any where near empirical reality.

  19. Do you know about this ref, Cliff? Former husky and colleague Gabe Vecchi among authors. If this is true, in the future fires like these could be due in part to anthropogenic forcing.

  20. I think what many people have to remember is the fact that, at this point, it is impossible to directly blame human caused climate change as the cause for these fires. Especially with a strong El Nino event that commonly causes warm and dry spring weather in Western Canada. And due to decades of fire suppresion that has turned the forests of Northern Canada into a tinderbox. There are misinformed people who like to blame every major weather event on AGW which is not only non scientific but plain wrong. In theory, AGW could be a factor (we don't know how much of a factor) in the severity, the duration and the prevalence of such climate extremes but the fact is that major weather events and climate extremes also occur due to natural variability and have been for eons. Until it can be scientifically proven that these extreme weather events are a direct result of AGW or if its AGW or natural variabilty that is the "driving force" behind these events, it is purely speculation at this point to blame it on AGW.

  21. JeffB - AGW is entirely a forecasting problem. That means we need to prepare for the future now, using our advance warning of what the future will be. If we wait - to "act in the present" as you advocate - we ( no, make that our kids) will be too late to react to the magnitude of ecological instability that is expected if temperatures continue their trajectory.

    As for risk aversion, I should have used the term "loss aversion" in terms of describing irrational and risk incompetent heuristics. Loss aversion is a very well estabished irrationality endemic to humanity, generally as I described it previously. The problem of climate change is perfectly designed to elicit this hazard in judgement. It is the basis for climate change denial in all its manifestations. For instance, right wingers percieve that our status quo of capitalism is threatened by the obvious need to restrain certain elements of capitalism in order to mitigate global warming by deviating from market forces. This is a value we have right now. The intitive response is to deny climate change to preserve the imperative of free market captitalism.

    Regardless of economic beliefs, this is a subversion of the establishment of fact in regards to cliamte science. This is what risk /loss aversion is as a heuristic - a subversion of soud risk assessment.

  22. I forgot to attach this link - here is loss aversion:

  23. Hyakamook - I think it is pretty obvious that Cliff gets a lot of flack for his "soft pedal" approach to climate change messaging. I for one am puzzled at this but really, from a climatologist's point of view, it seems as substantial a perspective as any. As puzzled as I am ( because of my own biases) I really don't see anything alarming about it. His messaging is generally aligned with other consensus opinions, including forecasts, in terms of climate change.

    The problem with climate is better framed as risk, which is a decsion making process beyond the expertise of a climatologist. An ecologist opinion would be far more relevant for assessing risk by providing meaning to the climate forecasts. This is why the question of to what degree the fires are "caused" by climate change is such a dead end. When a climatologist says "only a bit" we intuitively think it insignificant. An ecologist can put that "only a bit" into proper context, which often makes that only a bit mean a whole lot more.

    The forest ecologist, or the marine biologist or the glaciologist puts the climate changes into perspective, less abstract in terms of meaning and risk. Then, ituitively, we can better frame the problem as risk, because it is framed in terms of our resources and our vulnerabilities.

    There is nothing more abstract (incomprehensible) than "2 degrees warming". Much more comprehensible is salmon stock extinction, mollusk fishery colapse, tinder dry forests and decreased hydro electric capacity, perhaps all at once along with the same all over the world, not just here.

  24. Thank you, Bruce, for your kindly reply.

    I wrote my snappy and frustrated little comeback on my phone, on the ferry, and then didn't have a chance to think about it for a few days because of a conference. Nuanced, it was not. And afterwards, as I rolled off the ferry, I thought: blast it, this is Cliff Mass's own blog. So, sorry about that, Cliff, thanks for posting it on your blog despite its snappiness.

    Bruce, that said, Cliff wields a lot of knowledge power on the street, by his NPR exposure and the very fact that the words "climate" or "eco" are not in his title. He also is in a position of some neutrality, so he can get through to people who aren't convinced. While I do see what you mean about it not really being his job, why does he have to soft-pedal and equivocate so much? He could more easily not say *anything* about a connection between our current situations and climate change, and leave it up to the reader/listener. Instead, he keeps bringing up the subject, only to disavow a connection between the two.

    It's been really frustrating to me. To be sure, part of my alarm/bias spring from the fact that I live in far NW Washington, where it's now dry as a bone and so many of our big trees are dying of drought, Swiss needlecast, and other diseases brought on by increasing temperatures. Yes, we've had only a subtle increase in temperature and decrease in spring/summer/fall precip over the past decades that I've lived here, but clearly that change brings with it significant impacts.

    Witnessing this and knowing that a vast majority of climate scientists agree with the premise of anthropogenic climate change makes me ask myself why does Cliff Mass soft-pedal/equivocate so much? He's in an enviable position to raise awareness and foment real change. Unfortunately, from what I've seen, the people who are using his words for awareness-raising are climate change deniers (he's been cited by Breitbart a few times, for goodness' sakes). I believe that it's up to us, his readers/listeners, to urge him (and NPR) to rethink his own method talking about climate change.


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