March 03, 2024

Another Deceptive Front-Page Climate Story in the Seattle Times

 The Seattle's Times ClimateLab writers have done it again.

Another highly deceptive and error-filled climate story in the ST.  One predicting more than a doubling of wildfires over western Washington and Oregon by mid-century.


The trouble is that this story is based on a highly problematic paper published in February in JGR Biogeosciences (see below).   A paper that is missing the key element of Westside wildfires and makes predictions that are unsupported and highly exaggerated.


Before anyone suggests I should not comment on this work, let me note that I am doing research on EXACTLY this topic.  I have read all the relevant papers.  The authors of this paper cite several of my previous papers on the topic.

The Key Control of Westside Fires Was Ignored

Both this article and the Seattle Times article ignore the central fact about major wildfires occurring west of the Cascade Crest.  

Let me explain.

Westside fires are infrequent for a reason:  the region west of the Cascade crest is generally too moist to burn.   Precipitation is abundant west of the crest (see below) and for most of the year cool, moist marine air from off the Pacific (whose temperature is about 50F) floods over western Washington and Oregon.


Moisture vegetation and ground surfaces, as well as cool/moist air.    Wildfires don't have a chance and are thus rare.

But there is an atmospheric "trick" that can make Westside wildfires possible:  strong easterly (from the east) winds.   Winds that are generally dry and warm, and capable of pushing the moist/cool marine air out to sea.

Virtually all major Westside fires are associated with strong easterly winds.  

The air starts relatively dry over eastern Washington and Oregon.  As it descends the western slopes of the Cascades and coastal mountains, it is warmed by compression, causing relative humidity to plummet.   

The warm, dry air associated with powerful downslope winds can rapidly dry surface fuels, no matter how moist they were days or weeks before.  The strong winds can also start fires, by damaging electrical infrastructure. among other ways.

I have looked at every one of the Westside fires of the past 120 years-- all of them were associated with powerful easterly winds.   

Examples include the Yacolt Burn near Vancouver, WA in 1902, the Tillamook Fires of the 1930s, and the 2020 fires over western Oregon (there are more).  Being a little warmer or drier the days before would have made little difference to these fires:  the easterly winds were the key.

Tillamook Burn, Clatsop County Oregon

So if you want to know how Westside fires will change over the next century, you MUST determine how the easterly winds will change.

Unfortunately, the JGR paper does not examine this issue at all.  The Seattle Times article ignores the issue as well.

You probably are asking yourself:  Will strong easterly winds strengthen or weaken under global warming?   

I have examined this question with high-resolution regional climate models (and published the results in the peer-reviewed literature).  It appears easterly winds will WEAKEN, which would reduce Westside fires.    The Seattle Times article doesn't provide that critical information.

But the problem with the Seattle Times article and paper it cites does not end there.

The paper assumes the same distribution and frequency of fire starts as today and then uses the output from global climate models to see how the fires would change as the earth warms.

Unfortunately, they used a highly unrealistic and aggressive global warming scenario (RCP 8.5) that greatly exaggerates any global warming impacts.   


The global model also is far too coarse to get the local meteorology correct. For example, THERE ARE NO CASCADES in the simulation at all.

Finally, let me note there are many other problems with the paper and even more in the Seattle Times story.

The ClimateLab series in the Seattle Times is pushing incorrect and hyped climate information.  The reporters do not evaluate the validity of the exaggerated claims they report.  This is not quality journalism and misinforms citizens who need accurate information about climate change.  

37 comments:

  1. Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP 8.5) was called the "business as usual" scenario when, in fact, it was known to be wrong from the get-go. It has been shown to be improbable and likely impossible.
    The paper has 7 authors (were there reviewers ?) and at least one of them must know that RCP 8.5 is fantasy. One of the first thing one does when doing and writing research is to start with a review of literature. I think I learned this by Christmas of 1965.
    Using other people's money (OPM) for this research is fraud.

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  2. When did "may" become synonymous with real news rather than posted on editorial sections?

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    1. For many people these days, "may" is as good as "is". These people are so fundamentally confused they can't even differentiate between a male and a female, so this is what you get.

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    2. When I see 'may' that's when I stop reading an article. Tell me when it becomes 'is', and I will read on. So much for filling the 24 hour news cycle.

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    3. m-t-e - Most climate change projections have turned out to be correct, and useful. A few haven't. Isn't better to make projections for planning purposes, than to be blindsided by every change that occurs?

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    4. Jerry..that is not true....most have been excessive...cliff

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  3. "If the world continues to emit greenhouse gasses at the current pace...."
    I'm an English major. I don't know anything. I'm certain the climate is changing and I expect human activity contributes to it, but we can't be certain by how much. There's more to it than human activity, right?

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  4. Yeah but it comes from Climate Lab™. So it must be good

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  5. Thank you for enlightening us on this topic--good info

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  6. Reading this study and others addressing the same subject, it seems the point they are making regarding west- of- the- mountain areas is that fire there will become more frequent as the climate warms, and not necessarily that individual fires will become larger. As you state the conditions leading to very large, east wind-driven fires may decrease with a warming climate but the increase in smaller fires would lead to an increased burned area compared to the past. One reason is the existence of fuels ready to burn in these west side forests where large fires have been relatively rare. Our east side forests will still be prone to large fires as the climate warms but increasingly, a large part of the more fire prone forest areas of Eastern Washington have burned off in the large fires of the past 40 years so fuels have become more limited. Even though strong east wind episodes have been responsible for the very large fires west of the Cascades, there are plenty of examples of fires becoming quite large under non-east wind situations in west side fires, especially those starting in steep heavily forested areas under hot, unstable but relatively light wind air masses, and these situations may become more frequent as climate warms.

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    1. Wxman..... I don't think you are correct. Can you name a SINGLE large westside fire that occurred without strong easterly winds. One case? Now it is certainly possible to get some small grass fires in the Westside, but the big fires involving forest areas have all involved strong easterly winds. ..cliff

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    2. Granted that the very large mega fires of the west side and most very large fires elsewhere have wind as the significant factor. However, many of the other smaller but still comparatively large fires west of the Cascades, that were not spread by a strong east wind event, had, as these large fires also had, previous drought and heat as major factors. In fact, I challenge you to find a single large Pacific Northwest fire that did not have previous extended dry periods and usually warmer than normal temperatures associated with it. Also, some of the mega fires you listed began during warm, dry periods that preceded the strong east wind episodes by several days or even weeks. The 1933 Tillamook fire started on August 15 after a prolonged summer dry period, spread to about 40,000 acres over the next two days, during which a record high temperature was set at Portland, then lay fairly quiet for several days before very strong east winds a week or so later produced the major loss. During those first days, the fire spread was to the south and southeast indicating a northerly wind. 40,000 acres is a large fire for the west side. In fact, for reasons that you mentioned, the west side in many summers do not get large fires of even a few hundred acres, so any fire of say 500 acres or more, is a rare fire for the west side. The Beachie Cr. fire of 2020 that grew to over 100,000 acres under strong east winds, started several weeks earlier during the extended warm, dry summer and just gradually got larger until blowing up when the east wind hit. In August, 1967 I was on the Evergreen Mt. fire near Skykomish that was man-caused after a long, hot dry summer. Temperatures when it started and for several days after, reached into the 90s. Winds were generally light and mostly up slope and up valley during the days. The fire blew up every afternoon with a tall convection column and spotting that spread the fire eastward up the Rapid River valley to eventually reach about 6000 acres. There was one day of east wind toward the end of this fire but the wind was short-lived and not too strong so fire spread to the west was minor. If it had been a major east wind, this fire likely would have become much larger. There have now been several fires the past two summers in this general north Cascade area, which is rare for the reasons you have mentioned. Maybe these have not been large acreage-wise but they are rare and have started due to warm, dry conditions. I believe the referenced paper you objected to points out that more frequent warm, dry periods expected under climate change warming will lead to more of these types of fires which may not become huge if strong east winds are not present but will still increase the amount of acres burned since fuel is still readily available in most west side forests. And the fact that they may become more frequent will lead to an increased chance that fire will be present when a major east wind event occurs.
      Finally, you still seem to believe that bad forest management, and other non-weather factors have been the main cause of the recent large wildland fires, more so than more frequent warm, dry seasons. Consider the large urban fires of the past; the great London fire of 1666, the Chicago fire of 1871, or closer to home, the fires that burned down Seattle, Ellensburg and Spokane, all in 1889. One could say these were due to poor management decisions, building too many wooden buildings too close together. However, all of these big urban fire burned during years with seasons that were unusually warm and dry. The deadly Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin occurred at the same time as the Chicago fire and summer of 1889 saw many large forest fires in Washington State, so even these urban fires seem to respond to weather factors that are conducive to fire.

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  7. About Climate Lab at the Seattle Times. Check out the team and their backgrounds in 'STEM'. Pretty disappointing cohort the Times hired to cover climate paid for by the funding foundations. Surely the Times could hire graduate students from a reputable professor in the Seattle area. https://www.seattletimes.com/about-climate-lab/#meet-our-team

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  8. Has the Seattle Times ever had journalistic integrity? Didn't they have a columnist who campaigned to buy the Berlin Wall and ship it to WA to keep out Californians? And now that Covid has disappeared as a method of creating fear and clicks, they have to find an alternate terror to sell.

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  9. area burned in wa state has risen dramatically in the last 20 years


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    1. Burned area now is far less than 80-100 years ago. Forest management issue, invasive species, and human ignition are the key reasons for the recent increases.

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    2. Yes, but burned acres are about 1/5 of that burned 100 years ago.

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    3. Cliff - As wildfires increase worldwide (e.g. record burns in Canada last year and currently in Texas), doesn't it become a bit harder to chalk it up to forest management issues? Forest management is very different in Texas, the Canadian arctic, etc relative to here.
      Also, everything else being equal, it seems like a stretch to assume that higher temperatures and longer wildfire seasons will NOT increase wildfires.

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    4. Jerry...you are not correct... globally, burned area has declined...check the numbers. Wildfire frequency and area is controlled by many factors, and meteorological ones are probably small at this point compared to the huge changes at the surface. And there is no reason to expect the Texas situation has anything to to with climate change..cliff

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    5. Jerry, management practices may change by region, but that doesn't mean they still don't contribute to fire growth. Canadian forests suffer same over crowded bug infested forest we have. Lead in part by years of putting out fires and no logging. In areas of Canadian forest to remote to log. They still flew in fire fighters and put out fires needed to keep them healthy. Also, for Texas, like most dry shrub area, invasive grasses fuel fast fire spread and brush like sagebrush needs to be burned off (which we stop it from doing) to keep it under control. From experience, I have seen a wind driven fire burn through old growth sage brush 6-8ft high have 40ft flame heights. Hard to stop a wall of fire like that. So yes management still plays major roles. Log, graze, or burn off.

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    6. Cliff -- where do you get your numbers re: global burned area? I've been comparing products. Does it account for land category? I've read that global burned area has decreased, but that is primarily due to croplands/grasslands/savannah -- there appears to be not trend in forested land at least per GFED5 burned area product, which only accounts 2001-onwards. There's a lot of uncertainty in those global estimates

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    7. One thing that is not pointed out often enough is the important difference between number of fires (i.e., number of starts) and acres burned. They can be very different! Remote fires tend to be a lot larger.

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  10. "Before anyone suggests I should not comment on this work..." And there you have the fundamental problem regarding this issue, or in fact any issue when it comes to basic scientific inquiry - people are entirely too keen to come on and attempt to censor and basically eliminate any and all voices of contrariness to the dominant narrative. Cliff experienced this mob mentality when students at the local university shouted him down during a presentation. We've seen this type of behavior countless of times in the past when tyrannical regimes attempt to take control of previously democratic nations.

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    1. Very overdramatic fear mongering.

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    2. Strike as non - responsive, your honor. Additionally, your nickname is quite appropriate.

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  11. I think the main argument here is with the peer reviewed paper and its authors and not the Seattle Times. I would like to see a rebuttal by Dye to your posting here. That would be the start of an appropriate discussion.
    Then there’s the criticism that the paper used the 8.5 scenario: “Unfortunately, they used a highly unrealistic and aggressive global warming scenario (RCP 8.5) that greatly exaggerates any global warming impacts.” My challenge to you is why you used the exact same 8.5 scenario in your 2022 paper “The Mesoscale Response to Global Warming over the Pacific Northwest Evaluated Using a Regional Climate Model Ensemble”. Plain as day in your article’s abstract it states: “The RCP8.5 emissions scenario was used to drive both global and regional climate models.” So why is it OK for one research paper and bad for another?

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    1. Tom.... there is a BIG difference in what I did and what Dye did. I ran RCP8.5 to see its impacts. But DID NOT make claims about effects of wildfires or anything else. And now I am DOING IT ALL AGAIN with RCP4.5. I would never claim RCP8.5 is predictive about any phenomena. That is the problem with Dye's paper, in addition to neglecting the critical wind issue..cliff

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  12. Just an actual weather comment!..right now, at 2:20pm in S. Everett, we just had a nice blast of large hail, for the last 20 minutes--this hail has covered my neighborhood streets, very similar to what actual snow can do. Very beautiful!

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  13. I find it peculiar that many of the " environmental journalists have very little limited educational background in the sciences. The Times writer in question has a BA from California Luthern University where she did win an award in a poetry contest. I questioned a family friend majoring in environmental journalism at Western on the science courses they were taking assuming that chemistry, botany and biology would be required. His answer was that he wasn't required to take those courses as they concentrated on a journalism curriculum. It appears that something is missing from this equation.

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  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  15. Many physical science degrees have been given the bachelor of arts treatment over the past 30 years. Become less "rigorous" so to speak. When I studied chemistry , people started their chemistry major. They got to the calculus requirements and some switched to biochemistry. If that was too much, on to declare a biology degree. Those were still offered as a Bachelor of Science. Then came the Bachelor of Arts options. I still don't understand why a university would offer a BA in a physical science. How can that offer mastery of that discipline?

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    1. That's what I have, B.A. in chemistry. But the technical part of the curriculum where I went (Western State U. of Colorado) is virtually the same as that of a typical B.S. program. The "Arts" part, I think, refers to more humanities and electives.

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    2. Over the last few years of looking up BS and BA requirements from schools in the chemistry major, it seems to really vary by school. The BS in many cases requires more physical science credits as well as often an undergraduate laboratory research experience. It probably also depends on the chosen electives by each individual student within their degree.

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  16. After reading this article over the weekend (I think it was in Saturday's edition), I had the feeling that this would push all of Cliff's buttons. ST is trying to provoke those of us with half a brain to stop our subscriptions with this type of drivel. However, like Cliff, I keep my subscription as it's nice to know what local people are thinking even when it is so wrong.

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  17. If we have to have climate change I hope it brings more summer thunderstorms in the West (and that would wet down the fuel if the rain is substantial) and more sunshine in the spring and fall. Our climate is so uneven. My understanding is that we'll get MORE rain with climate change. How will that rain be distributed?

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    1. Climate is as nature will have it and therefore it is always as it "should" be.. dry, wet, or otherwise.

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  18. And the high priests of the IPCC in Table 12.12 shows low confidence in any change in "Fire Weather" for "Already Emerged" or for expected emergence by 2050 or 2100 even under RCP8.5/SSP5-8.5.

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Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

More Wildfire Misinformation at the Seattle Times

 The Seattle Times continues to shamelessly exaggerate and hype the regional effects of climate change. This week they really went overboard...