Don't ignore role of climate change

  Dear HCN,

I've just read Ed Marston's column about the Los Alamos fire (HCN, 5/22/00: Yelling fire in a crowded West). I was disappointed to see no discussion of the impact of climate change on fire regimes and the occurrence of catastrophic crown fires in recent decades, despite the severe drought under which the New Mexico fires have arisen. Although fire suppression, grazing, and other land-use changes have clearly been significant in changing fire behavior in some environments over the last century, catastrophic fires are not simply the result of past management.

In the case of Yellowstone, various paleorecords have shown that large catastrophic fires recurring at intervals of 300-500 years are characteristic of Yellowstone over the last 3,000 years. The longer records also clearly show that climate changes are very important in controlling the magnitude and frequency of fires.

In addition, there is little scientific evidence of unnatural fuel buildup due to suppression in Yellowstone; after all, effective fire suppression only occurred after 1945, with the advent of aircraft support, and before the start of the natural fire policy in 1972. What is clear in the instrumental climate record since 1895 is a strong trend toward increasing summer temperatures and drought that culminated (for the time being) in the most severe drought of record during the 1988 fires.

Obviously, ponderosa pine forests feature different climatic and fire regimes than do the lodgepole pine-dominated forests of Yellowstone, but the role of climate change in recent catastrophic fires there has received scant attention from the U.S. Forest Service and the media.

Recent compilations of instrumental and tree-ring climate information from over the globe show that in the 20th century the climate is warming more dramatically than it has in at least 1,500 years. Evidence is mounting that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are involved in this warming, but it has occurred regardless of cause. To ignore such large-scale environmental change and focus simply on management issues alone is also to ignore realities of nature, as your column decries, and our potential influence on climate through atmospheric pollution.

I certainly agree that we could be a lot more wise in where and how we develop in fire-prone ecosystems, and how we manage fire, but unfortunately the problem is likely much bigger than that.

Grant Meyer
Albuquerque, New Mexico

The author is an assistant professor of geomorphology in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico.

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