06 September 2007

Greek fires: A sign of global warming?

This post from Jennifer Marohasy's blog, a well known lair of Deniers, doubters and head-in-the-sand types, doubts that recent Greek fires (and by extension, one supposes, all of the unprecedented fire activity in southern Europe this summer) are at least partly due to global warming. The idea is completely dismissed, with no evidence provided. Instead, we are to believe the fire is solely due to human factors, namely

  • Changes in land use because 'rural people' who regularly burn-off no longer control the land (increasing fuel load)

  • Transfer of responsibility for bushfire away from land managers to fire agencies and their 'suppression mentality' (increasing fuel load)

  • An over-reliance on technology like fire-fighting aircraft

While I have no doubt that these factors play some role in producing this disaster, this analysis ignores the primary factor required to produce wildfires of this size and intensity. That factor is the WEATHER AND CLIMATE. Does the fuel load play a role? Of course it does. Humans are also responsible in that most of the fires were likely human-lit (though probably not by terrorists or the mafia...). But none of those would matter if the weather conditions were not set up to produce such a fire. That this oversight comes from a a bushfire specialist in WA is all the more disappointing. He should know better.

The fact is that the weather, especially the heat, in southern Europe this summer has not been observed for at least several human lifetimes. All time record highs were observed in Greece earlier this summer (46 C at one point). While temperatures were not that high during the time of the last fires, they were still in the upper 30s and low 40s at the time of fire, more than enough to produce an 'extreme' fire danger rating (in the Australian vernacular).

Is this 'proof' of global warming? No, but it is consistent with the expected effects predicted by the theory. Namely, more heat waves and drought, resulting in an increase in wildfire. Exactly what has been observed. Consider this quote from Climate Progress (albeit it was given in a different context, but still relevant)

Yes, it could all be a grand coincidence or the result of inadequate data — but as a scientist I apply Occam’s Razor. We have data that matches our theory. The simplest explanation is that the theory is right.

Certainly the impact of the fires could have been reduced. The author of the original post makes valid points. Allowing fuel loads to build to such high levels through misguided environmentalism and/or inappropriate management of the land is foolish, and contributed to the disaster. But even with a lower fuel load (and regardless of the ignition source), the fires very well may have been uncontrollable given the meteorological situation and the resource and technology issue above would still be irrelevant.

The issues the author raises are important. But the Earth's changing climate cannot be ruled out as a factor in the devastation caused by these fires. Greece will be a long time recovering from this disaster. Humanity needs to use this as a learning experience to adapt to the changing climate.

1 comment:

Torjus Gaaren said...

And may I add that fires have the last years been occuring to a great extent in other Mediterranian countries. I didn't know that there was forest left to burn in Greece before this though...