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The Truth is in the Ashes

Very often it isn’t what you say that dictates the narrative, it’s what you choose to omit. The BBC understands this very well when it comes to reporting extreme weather events. Extreme storms and flooding require more energy and moisture to be held in the atmosphere. This can be expected with global warming and so such warming is bound to result in an increase in frequency and severity. Therefore, an observed increase in frequency or severity is surely due to global warming, QED. Other contexts rarely get a mention; or, if they do, they are always secondary considerations.

Similar logic applies to heat waves and forest fires. There’s no smoke without fire, and there’s no fire without global warming. As far as the BBC is concerned, it really is that simple. Or, at least, that is the impression they give whenever they report upon such events. Consequently, every single heat-related mishap becomes a golden opportunity to remind us all of the indisputable fact of global warming.

One such opportunity that has recently fired the BBC’s imagination (pun intended) is the conflagration currently underway in the Siberian wastelands. It has been well-covered by the BBC, for example, here and here. As always, the theme seems to be pre-written. Yes, such events have happened before, but this time it is so much worse – as you would expect with global warming. Undoubtedly, the increased severity is therefore due to global warming. And you know what that means. Yes, it’s going to get much, much worse folks.

I wonder, therefore, what the BBC would make of the forest and moorland fires occurring in my neck of the woods. They too have been happening for at least the thirty odd years that I have lived here, and yet, they too, appear to be on the increase. Obviously, according to the BBC’s abductive reasoning, this is the hand of global warming. Except for one awkward fact: the fires have only ever occurred during school holidays.

So, what are we to conclude? Is the increase due to global warming, or does it indicate a deterioration of social order, a manifestation of an increasingly destructive juvenile ennui? Of course, either or neither may be factors, but what do you think the BBC would make of it, if they could ever be bothered? Yep, I agree. The kids are kool. Global warming strikes again.

Steady on.” I here you say. “There are no kids in Siberia. What do you say now, smart-arse? In such wilderness there can only be one explanation for the increasing severity of such fires, the one brought to you by the BBC, the world’s most trusted source of bullshit news.”

Except, here again, there are one or two facts that usually don’t get a mention in the BBC broadcasts. Firstly, the Russian economy is on the skids, and so a cost-cutting policy has been introduced whereby boreal fires are now only to be tackled if they stray too close to a populated area. Surprise, surprise! Fires are now more extensive than they used to be. Greenpeace (less surprisingly) has bemoaned this policy. Global warming, it says, poses an increased threat and, with their new policy, the Russian authorities are not doing enough to combat it. No one seems to think that it is the new policy that poses the increased threat and that it is the climate that is not pulling its weight.

Secondly, in many cases, arson is suspected. There may not be a dense population of delinquent youths in Siberia, but authorities do have a problem with illicit logging, and there is evidence that ne’er-do-well lumberjacks are starting fires to cover the evidence. Once again, a deteriorating economy can be expected to correlate with an increase in such criminality. Global warming is not the only trend in town.

Finally, what are we to make of the following paper? It is a paleo-climatological study based upon charcoal analysis of sediment cores. Its headline is that boreal forest fires in Alaska are at a level not seen in the last 10,000 years. This fact has been gleefully pounced upon by many who have reported upon the Siberian outbreak (though they don’t seem to have noticed that the paper they cite is referring to a completely different country). The real devil, however, is in the detail. A point well made in the paper is that, if you are going to look at trends on a millennial scale, you have to consider both climatic and vegetative changes. To put it in the words of the authors:

These data allow us to put fire regime dynamics of the past several decades in the context of natural variability of past millennia and infer the role of climatefirevegetation interactions in boreal forest burning.”

So, it seems, the recent peak has as much to do with the availability of the right combustible material as it does the right climatic conditions.

Another awkward fact lurking in the paper goes as follows:

During the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA; ∼1,000–500 cal B.P.), the period most similar to recent decades, warm and dry climatic conditions resulted in peak biomass burning, but severe fires favored less-flammable deciduous vegetation, such that fire frequency remained relatively stationary.”

Did I just read that correctly? Charcoal analysis of sediment cores indicates peak biomass burning around the Medieval Period, suggesting similar climatic conditions?

Oh my God! Don’t tell Michael Mann. Tree rings be damned! The truth is in the ashes.

 

14 thoughts on “The Truth is in the Ashes

  1. You would have to bring up the Ashes wouldn’t you? Fortress Edgbaston no longer a redoubt.

    Extensive forest fires have always occurred since plants grew on the land. There is a famous paper about a river flood deposit (in South Wales?) containing large quantities of fossilized charcoal. The authors were able to estimate the area of coal forest that burned and it was comparable with the largest conflagrations of the present day.

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  2. “We chose the YF (Yukon Flats) ecoregion for this study because its recent fire frequencies are among the highest in the North American boreal forests (12, 13), corresponding to warm and dry summers in the region. Thus, this ecoregion is well-suited to serve as an upper bound on past and current burning in the boreal forest biome.”

    Alaska is not typical of northern hemisphere boreal forests. In fact it is very untypical. The interior of Alaska remained deglaciated during the last Ice Age because the Yukon flats region has exceptionally low precipitation. We’ve seen in the last couple of decades how Alaska is exceptionally prone to hot, dry heatwaves under the current jet stream regime. It is perhaps not remarkable that forest fires have peaked in that area coincident with hot, dry weather and increasing human activity.

    “Because air can’t hold as much moisture as it travels upslope and cools, rain and snow tend to unload on the south side of the Alaska Range. The north side stays dryer. An example of this: while rain and snow on Alaska’s southern coast is measured in feet, Yukon Flats can receive less than six inches of precipitation a year.”

    So the authors chose a very atypical boreal forest eco-region, with an atypical dry climate, with probably atypical amounts of human activity and an exceptional modern spike in forest fires, for their study concluding that “recent burning of boreal forests exceeds fire regime limits of the past 10,000 years”. Seems legit.

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  3. Jaime,

    I don’t think the authors make any secret of the untypical nature of the region they chose. It wasn’t chosen for its typicality but for the extent to which it suited the purposes of their investigation. This was not an investigation to demonstrate an increase in incidence of boreal fires and to prove a link with climate change. Rather it was an investigation into climate-fire-vegetation interaction. Such an investigation allowed them to draw conclusions such as:

    “Forest burning in recent decades has already converted much of the YF landscape to a fragmented mosaic of lower-flammability vegetation. Satellite analysis (9) and plot-level measurements (48) also suggest that boreal ecosystems in Alaska are transitioning to a more deciduous-rich state as a result of recent severe fires, and model simulations indicate that this feedback will dampen the direct impact of warming on the future fire regime of boreal forests (11, 38). If this prediction is realized, recent burning may mark the initiation of an active but stable fire regime similar to the fire regime of the MCA.”

    As such, I don’t have a problem with the paper. The only problem is that others, who are pushing the catastrophe narrative, latched onto the headline regarding a 10,000 year high, took it out of context, and added it to their compendium of propaganda factoids.

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  4. The authors do make the point that wildfires may induce a negative feedback consisting of the re-growth of less combustible deciduous vegetation. However, there’s grist for the warmists’ mill buried in the text of that paper John:

    “Our data reveal that FF is higher in recent decades than at any other time since the establishment of modern boreal forests 3,000 y ago. This charcoal-based estimate is supported by observational fire data. Concurrently, biomass burning inferred from CHAR has risen sharply to a level on par with the MCA maximum. Thus, the present fire regime seems to have surpassed the vegetation-induced limit that constrained burning during the MCA. Two factors may have contributed to this recent fire regime change. First, growing evidence suggests that climatic conditions of recent decades exceeded the range of variability during the MCA (27), which has probably favored forest burning (38).”

    “Satellite analysis (9) and plot-level measurements (48) also suggest that boreal ecosystems in Alaska are transitioning to a more deciduous-rich state as a result of recent severe fires,and model simulations indicate that this feedback will dampenthe direct impact of warming on the future fire regime of borealforests (11, 38). If this prediction is realized, recent burning maymark the initiation of an active but stable fire regime similar to the fire regime of the MCA. In this scenario, unprecedented fire activity of the past several decades will prove to be a transient anomaly, probably facilitated by rapid recent climate change and LIA fuel accumulation but unsustainable in the longer term.Our results suggest that the fire regime of the YF eco regionis presently beyond a limit defined by fire–vegetation feedbacks that constrained fire activity in the past several millennia. Recent burning in this region is among the most extensive of all North American boreal forests (12, 13), and it is likely that much of the biome has yet to reach such a vegetation-limited state. Fire activity is expected to increase in response to climate change in boreal forests worldwide (49), and as a result, deciduous cover may become a common feature of the biome (50). The modern YF landscape may therefore provide a future analog for other regions as they become increasingly fire-prone in a warming climate.”

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  5. Jaime,

    Indeed, the assumed reality of global warming provides the paper’s context, but those who are looking for further evidence in support of that assumption will not find it in this paper. Rather, it takes the assumption and uses it to speculate upon the future direction of biomass burning, basing those speculations upon what has happened in the past. What raised my eyebrows was that they take the MCA as their yardstick, as if the Hockey Stick had never existed. I suppose the faithful would stand by their assertions that the MCA was only a local phenomenon but, still, it would be a most convenient happenstance if the MCA were to have occurred in the very area needed to enable this paper’s research. The paper is silent on this matter, though the authors do seem keen to downplay the MCA’s climatic variability when compared to the current warming. Once again, this is assumed rather than demonstrated.

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  6. So the study sets out to ignore the historic negative correlation between CO2 and forest fires across the vast majority of North America to date. Instead they find a region that has had more forest fires, decide the cause is “climate change” and not land use, forestry practices, or local human population change and then tells us that forests across North America are at risk “in a warming world”.
    These authors are as circular as any religious rationalization seeking to find a defense of creationism by means of biological complexity.

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  7. Hunterson,

    As I say, I honestly don’t think the paper intends to make a case for anthropogenic global warming based upon biomass burning. Rather, the truth of global warming is assumed and the implications for the climate-burning-vegetation relationship are explored. I’m afraid that we live in an era when it is no longer considered necessary to provide evidence for AGW; it has become the axiomatic starting point.

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  8. > Very often it isn’t what you say that dictates the narrative, it’s what you choose to omit. The BBC understands this very well when it comes to reporting extreme weather events.

    There is a good example of this economy with the truth in the BBC’s “Climate change – the facts”. After a great deal of imagery of storms and and overturning lorry, Peter Stott appears in front of a picture of a giant swirling hurricane. And he talks about … temperature trends.

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  9. John, you are right. The climate fundies who wrote their tract are just pushing more theological arguments to strengthen the faith

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  10. As usual, nothing new under the sun, (especially with forest fires in Alaska):

    From 1983:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20100115013411/http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF6/610.html

    “Each year during the past decade, forest fires have burned an average of 600,000 acres of forested land in interior Alaska. So the few tens of thousands of acres swept by fires during early June represent a small part of what is likely to burn before summer is over.

    During the 30 years between 1940 and 1970 the average forest area burned annually was close to a million acres, so there actually has been a decrease in average area burned this past decade.The worst fire year of all in Alaska was 1940. That summer, fires raged over 4.5 million acres of forests in the Yukon, Tanana and Porcupine watersheds and on the Seward Peninsula.

    The years before that saw some sizable fires, also. In 1935, a single fire near Lake Iliamna burned 1.9 million acres. Other notable fires of that era were on the Sheenjek River in 1937 that burned more than 300,000 acres and the Mosquito Fork Flat fire along the old Valdez-Eagle trail that consumed 900,000 acres in 1922.

    Although man has set many of the fires that burned through Alaska over the years, most of the area burned–about four-fifths each year–is due to lightning-caused fires. Except in southeastern Alaska, where fires are rare, natural fire is an important part of life everywhere in the forest and tundra
    areas of Alaska; there are few areas that have not been burned during the last 200 years.

    Some forest areas burn as often as every 50 or 60 years, and trees older than 170 years are rare.When a fire occurs, a new succession of forest growth begins, usually to end with the growth of tree types that were there before the fire. In fact, fire may be a requirement critical to maintaining stands of the most productive forest tree types–white spruce and birch.”

    Alaska science Forum 1998: “Ancient Clues from a Frozen Forest” Article #1409, by Ned Rozell
    https://www.gi.alaska.edu/alaska-science-forum/ancient-clues-frozen-forest-0

    “Péwé said the frozen forest at Eva Creek thrived at a time that was up to 5 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today, when there was little-to-no permafrost. Because the frozen forest is full of charred trees, Péwé suspects there were a lot of forest fires 125,000 years ago. Insect galleries carved into the bark of some of the frozen spruce indicate that the spruce bark beetle was also here then.

    During a cooling period, about 120,000 years ago, the Eva Creek trees died and were eventually covered with loess from dust storms that began on the Tanana Flats. The fine, powdery soil, the consistency of flour, was originally part of mountains in the Alaska Range before it was pulverized by the weight and force of glaciers and carried with melt water to the Tanana River. In the river, much of the silt settled in dry channels and riverbanks, where the wind picked it up and carried it somewhere else.

    In an incredibly gradual process, loess coated the Eva Creek forest. The ancient trees froze as the climate became cold enough to produce permafrost.”

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  11. Thanks, Dennis. One can always rely upon you to provide some pertinent background information.

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