The new research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA examines jet stream and moisture patterns in California over a centuries-long time period—1571 to 2013—which is nearly four times longer than the instrumental period of record that begins in the latter part of the 19th century. The length of the study enhances the understanding of dynamics that may contribute to extreme impacts from wildfires, as well as precipitation extremes. The work provides a stronger foundation and a longer-term perspective for evaluating regional natural hazards within California and the economic risks to one of the world's largest economies.Between 2012 and 2018, several deadly and costly extreme wildfire events impacted California, including some of the state’s largest and most destructive wildfires on record. In 2018, California experienced several of its costliest, deadliest, and largest wildfires to date, according to records that date back to 1933. Such extreme events, which are tracked by NCEI in its Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters reports, prompt concern for the future. [Photo of scientist examining burned base of tree, courtesy of Carl Skinner, U.S. Forest Service] Each scientist on the research team brought different perspectives and necessary knowledge to the study. These included expertise in paleoclimatology and paleoecology as well as wildfire research. The international, multi-disciplinary approach needed to execute the research underscored the many factors that can contribute to extreme weather and climate events.
Very recently, 2017 bucked a pattern seen in the longer record. The severe Tubbs and Thomas fires of 2017, a high-precipitation year, overrode the NPJ’s historical relationship with low-fire extremes after cool seasons of very high moisture. Extreme precipitation had compromised the Oroville Spillway earlier that year in addition to bringing about dangerous floods and landslides. Prior to modern fire suppression, the paleoclimatic reconstruction showed no cases of a high-precipitation year coupled with a high-fire year. If warming continues, as is the scientific consensus, then significant wet season rain and snow may not ensure a quiet fire season afterward.“Recent California fires during wet NPJ extremes may be early evidence of this change,” the paper states. Besides fire risk and its associated health and economic impacts, such a change could alter species distribution, forest composition, and ecosystems. Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels