Wet, dry cycles are natural

Short attention spans betray understanding climate change, fires

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WENATCHEE -- It's hot and getting hotter. The forecast calls for 100 degrees in Wenatchee by Sunday, which is way-above-normal, not-quite-record-breaking hot.

It is natural to worry, but as the scientists say, weather happens today and climate change happens over a long, long time. People far more expertly qualified than I have warned that our spewing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has, and will, warm the atmosphere and alter our climate -- and likely cause us serious problems. We should take this seriously, but The New York Times and Washington Post aren't going to point with alarm to a 100-degree day in Wenatchee in July, because it doesn't mean much. If it's 100 in Washington, D.C., that's different.

The average temperature in Wenatchee for early July is about 85 degrees, which puts us a full 10 to 15 degrees above average. We will soon forget that a couple of weeks ago, we were complaining about how cold it was and wondering if we'd ever see 80 degrees again. We have such short memories.

Walk down to see the Columbia River flowing through Confluence Park, and you are welcome to tell yourself that this is weird, that something unusual is happening, and you'd be right. The Columbia is flowing at more than 300,000 cubic feet per second past Wenatchee, and that is just a whole lot of water. In 2011, the river was high, too; the Loop Trail was flooded and the Columbia hit 335,000 cfs on June 1. It topped 401,000 cfs in June 1997, and that was weird, too. What was happening in June 1948, I have no idea, but the river topped 633,000 cfs at Grand Coulee, three times its normal flow.

Our short memories can burn us. The past few weeks have been filled with horrible scenes of the wildfires sweeping through Colorado and several other western states, and of the human tragedy as hundreds of homes are turned to ashes. It has been very hot and very dry through much of the West, and when this happens, forests are likely to catch fire. Is this evidence of climate change? It could be, say the scientists. At least, climate science says it's hot and getting hotter, and when it's hot, you have fires.

"What we're seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like," said Princeton scientist Michael Oppenheimer in a conference call organized by a climate-change public-relations group.

In newspapers across the country, many headlines blamed the fires on our greenhouse gases and the burning of fossil fuels.

Atmospheric warming contributes to the fires, say scientists, and human beings contribute to that warming. But that's not all. Colorado and just about everywhere in the West naturally experience severe drought cycles, even if we forget the most recent one. Forest fires are routine and natural, but they are more intense in recent years, helped immensely by a century of fire suppression and the recent lack of logging, allowing the biomass in many western forests to increase by a factor of 10. We have many more trees thirsting for the same water, and thus much more fuel for fires. And next to these overgrown, drought-plagued, insect-ridden, flammable forests, we have built many homes in recent years. Fires are certain to destroy more of them if this practice continues.

In this region, we have been in a wet cycle for a few years, which has helped spare us from major fires. That will likely change. We will probably have heat and drought again, as we have had heat and drought many times before, and we will likely have fires, and human beings will make them worse, whatever the weather.

Tracy Warner is a columnist for The Wenatchee World. Email: warner@wenatcheeworld.com.