Recent Climate Conditions Behind Deadly Wildfires in California Oct 12, 2017

From NOAA, Author:  Rebecca Lindsey

Under the driving force of fierce winds, deadly wildfires exploded across northern California in the second week of October 2017. According to the Los Angeles Times, at least 17 people had been killed as of October 11, and thousands of homes and other infrastructure—including cell phone towers used by the state’s emergency services—had been destroyed.

[NASA satellite images from Worldview. ]

The extremely dangerous fire conditions actually began last winter, with near-record precipitation between December 2016-February 2017. The drought-busting amounts of precipitation re-stocked the state’s snowpack, which had been heavily depleted by 6 years of drought.

The wet winter fostered “megablooms” of desert wildflowers and ushered in a lush growing season. Unfortunately, the climate swung to a different extreme. The state’s second-wettest winter on record was followed by its hottest summer. Baked to tinder in the extreme heat, the abundant vegetation of spring became the kindling for these autumn fires.

Winter (December–February) precipitation (top) and summer (June–August) average temperature in California from 1896-2017.  NOAA graphs, based on data from NCEI’s Climate at a Glance tool.

Thanks to the interplay between an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, the legacy of historic fire suppression policies, and natural variability in drought cycles, California and the rest of the U.S. Southwest are likely to face this kind of devastating fire season even more often in the second half of this century. According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment:

Between 1970 and 2003, warmer and drier conditions increased burned area in western U.S. mid-elevation conifer forests by 650% (Ch. 7: Forests, Key Message 1).…Models project…up to a 74% increase in burned area in California, with northern California potentially experiencing a doubling under a high emissions scenario toward the end of the century.

According to an analysis done in 2015, the number of weeks in the year during which climate conditions in Northern California are favorable for very large fires will double or quadruple by mid-century (2041-2070) compared to the recent past (1971-2000) if carbon dioxide emissions remain high. In other parts of the West, the risk of extremely dangerous fire weather conditions may increase six fold.

The projected increase in the number of “very large fire weeks”—weeks in which conditions are favorable to the occurrence of very large fires—by mid-century (2041-2070) compared to the recent past (1971-2000). Projections are based on the possible emissions scenario known RCP 8.5, which assumes continued increases in carbon dioxide emissions. NOAA map, based on data from Barbera et al, 2015.  More detail.

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


STORMY SUNSET - Check out this view from one of our field correspondents from Texas Saturday evening. Severe weathe…

4 hours ago by WeatherNation

SCARY TIMELAPSE - Here's another view of what appears to be a funnel cloud moving over Cleveland, TN.…

6 hours ago by WeatherNation

Strong thunderstorms continue to push through parts of the south and through the Tennessee Valley region this Satur…

6 hours ago by WeatherNation

NEW VIDEO: Viewer video of a possible #tornado in #Tennessee looking toward #Etowah where a tornado warning was iss…

7 hours ago by WeatherNation

DAMAGING WINDS - Winds tear through Waynesburg, KY and destroy a barn early Saturday evening. The severe threat co…

7 hours ago by WeatherNation

Listen to that! Strong #thunderstorms are producing large #hail and damaging winds Saturday evening in #Texas. St…

7 hours ago by WeatherNation

Concerning the two areas under a severe thunderstorm watch, here are the hour-by-hour forecasts through tonight. Or…

8 hours ago by WeatherNation

SOUND ADVICE: Heavy #rain can cause slick roads, take it slow and don't drive through flooded roadways. #TXwx

9 hours ago by WeatherNation

Winter Weather Advisories are up for many areas in the western U.S., as another wave of snow blankets the region. S…

9 hours ago by WeatherNation

Our field teams are out covering strong and #severe storms in #Texas. In Rising Star, TX, they encountered some ver…

9 hours ago by WeatherNation
Follow Us