A s I write this at the end of July, 79 wildfires are burning across 12 states in the U.S. In Oregon, a mammoth fire has engulfed some 400,000 acres

What’s Fueling Today’s Extreme Fires

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2021-08-05 10:30:04

A s I write this at the end of July, 79 wildfires are burning across 12 states in the U.S. In Oregon, a mammoth fire has engulfed some 400,000 acres—an area half the size of Rhode Island—and destroyed hundreds of buildings and vehicles, including more than 160 homes. Smoke from wildfires in the western half of the continent has darkened skies over cities in the east, including Toronto, where I am. People in Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. are struggling with hazy, smoke-filled skies.

The recent rash of news stories about wildfires has implied wildfires are getting more frequent and burning more intensely, fueled by climate change. Janice Coen is a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. She has devoted her career to studying wildfires and the complex relationships among those fires, weather systems, and the atmosphere. She uses infrared imagery and computer models to try to predict where such fires will ignite and how they evolve over time, and the connections between wildfires and climate.

In an interview over Zoom, Coen tells me climate change plays a significant role in wildfires. However, she says, “It’s not as obvious as ‘the world’s getting hotter’ or ‘the world’s getting drier.’” The geophysics of wildfires is complex, but Coen relishes the challenge of explaining them. She says her research center is “trying to teach me to give the media soundbites of 30 seconds.” But, she adds with a laugh, her answers “are more like Thanksgiving dinners!”

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