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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


The Burn Test

My summer break is over. This summer of flames is not.

Wildfires have already burned more than 600,000 hectares across the European Union — the second-largest area burned since record-keeping began in 2006.

In the Amazon forest in Brazil, fires set intentionally to clear land of timber for cattle surged in August to the highest level in over a decade.

Across the Western United States, there are about 120 notable fires burning, including some very large ones in California. California’s fire season traditionally peaks between July and October, but that schedule has become more unpredictable because of climate change. Dry timber offer ample fuel. Winds whip wildfires across the land.

My colleague, Raymond Zhong, was in the area earlier this year, following scientists at Blodgett Forest Research Station. He was there to write about one way to temper the intense wildfires of the Anthropocene: setting small strategic fires, known as prescribed burns.

The Mosquito Fire is now a high-stakes test of that strategy. I spoke to Ray last night.

Ray: If the Mosquito Fire reaches Blodgett Forest Research Station, where I was reporting recently, the hope is that the blaze will settle down a bit there because of the recent prescribed burns. The flames will become less intense. The fire might keep burning, but it will stay closer to the ground instead of engulfing houses and 50-foot pines. That’s the hope.

Somini: Prescribed burns mimic nature in a way. Indigenous communities in the western United States long carried out prescribed burns, but that was before climate change and decades of fire suppression made fires as fierce and unpredictable as they are now. What do we know about whether they work in the present day?

Ray: Prescribed burns are highly effective at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires. They bring forests back to an earlier state, in which low-intensity fires ripped through quite regularly, clearing out brush and giving the ecosystem a chance to regenerate. But for decades, we insisted on putting out every single fire. Forests are now overgrown and intensely flammable. So when a wildfire does come along, it’s stronger. It can burn down mature, healthy trees.

Somini: So if I live in an area prone to wildfires, should I be lobbying local officials to do more prescribed burns? I mean, your story suggests there’s a lot we don’t know, that scientists are scrambling to figure out.

Ray: Agencies like the Forest Service are already aiming to burn much more each year than they used to. But scientists are trying to figure out how to burn smarter. Climate change is making forests hotter and drier for more of the year. If we want to burn more, but we have less time each year to do it, then we need to make sure we’re burning in a way that maximizes the benefits to forests while also minimizing smoke that can affect nearby communities. That’s where better science comes in.

Somini: Okay. But they are also risky. A fire in New Mexico earlier this summer was started by two prescribed burns. It became the largest fire in the state’s history.

Ray: The vast majority of prescribed burns go as planned, and nobody gets hurt. Unfortunately, when things do go wrong, the consequences can be very painful, like in New Mexico. The Forest Service acknowledged, in its investigation into that New Mexico fire, that its methods for planning prescribed burns aren’t keeping up with climate change.

Somini: I’ve gone up to the Sierras many times over the years, including this summer, with my teenager. The trees are ancient, but they’re also intensely feeling the impact of man-made climate change. It was pretty mind-blowing, and I wrote about it in this newsletter. Was there anything mind-blowing about this reporting trip for you?

Ray: Driving up through the Sierras, you can see, even from the road, how densely packed the trees are in some places. It’s stunning to behold, incredibly majestic. It’s only when you think about what could happen if a fire ever roared through, that it starts to look dangerous instead of beautiful.


  • An increasing number of Americans are moving to parts of the country that are more likely to burn.

  • Riverside County in Southern California, which is already battling a growing wildfire, is also facing a tropical storm that could bring flooding and mudslides.

  • Aerial images show the devastating aftermath of the Mill fire in Weed, Calif.

The Times is running a series of virtual climate conferences leading up to COP27, this year’s big climate summit in Egypt in November. The first one, with Al Gore and John Kerry, is taking place Sept. 20. You can register to view it for free and check out the later sessions.

Irreversible changes: A team of scientists said that the failure to limit global warming will likely set off several climate “tipping points,” such as the collapse of Greenland’s ice sheet.

Burning ancient forests: Europe is betting billions on burning wood pellets for supposedly renewable power. But the strategy is destroying massive old-growth forests, a Times investigation found.

Supply chain turmoil: A drought in China shows how extreme weather events, fueled by climate change, are disrupting the global economy.

An ancient monument resurfaces: A persistent drought has dried up a reservoir and exposed the “Spanish Stonehenge,” a tomb that is over 5,000 years old.

California’s heat-strained power grid was on the brink of collapse when a text went out to 27 million cellphones: “Power interruptions may occur unless you take action.” Within minutes, energy use plummeted, averting a major crisis. “We were down to the last gallon,” one official said.

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