Current fire in Maui…
There is currently a wildfire on the Hawaiian island of Maui that has forced evacuations and led some people to flee into the ocean for safety. The fires are being driven by strong winds and dry air, primarily associated with Hurricane Dora passing hundreds of miles to the south. The fires have reportedly burned structures and prompted evacuations in Maui, particularly in the Upcountry and Lahaina areas. Lahaina is a popular tourist destination on the island’s northwest side. Multiple evacuation orders are in effect for the island and there are no details yet on the extent of the damage. A dozen people were rescued by the Coast Guard after jumping into the ocean to reportedly avoid the flames. Acting Governor Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Gov. Josh Green.
As with every natural disaster, the links to climate change were made almost immediately. However, attributing a single wildfire directly to climate change is an oversimplification of the myriad factors at play. Wildfires can be influenced by various causes, including local weather, forest management, human activities, and natural events like hurricanes passing and changing wind patterns.
Historically, the climate has always exhibited natural variability with periods of extreme conditions. It’s crucial to differentiate between this natural variation and the changes driven or intensified by human activities.
Of course that didn’t stop folks from attributing these fires in Maui directly to anthropogenic climate change…
But, as noted above, the conditions that are driving this tragic fire event are related to Hurricane Dora passing to the south and disrupting wind and humidity patterns. So, if climate change is making this type of event more frequent that implies that hurricanes, like Dora, will become more frequent. Let’s take a look at the data.
Hurricane frequency in the 20th century…
Hurricane frequency in the 20th century showed considerable variability, especially in the North Atlantic basin. This region experienced active hurricane periods in the 1950s and 1960s, a decrease in the 1970s and 1980s, and then a resurgence in the 1990s and 2000s and what appears to be another quiet period presently. However, global data for the entire century indicates a definitive decrease in the overall number of tropical cyclones. In fact, a study published in the journal Nature titled, “Declining tropical cyclone frequency under global warming” concludes:
Assessing the role of anthropogenic warming from temporally inhomogeneous historical data in the presence of large natural variability is difficult and has caused conflicting conclusions on detection and attribution of tropical cyclone (TC) trends. Here, using a reconstructed long-term proxy of annual TC numbers together with high-resolution climate model experiments, we show robust declining trends in the annual number of TCs at global and regional scales during the twentieth century.
The results from the 20CR dataset show a clear downward trend over the period from 1900 to 2012—as opposed to a weak upward trend in the earlier period—in both global and hemispheric annual numbers of TCs (Fig. 1 and Supplementary Fig. 1). On average, the global annual number of TCs has decreased by ~13% in the twentieth century compared with the pre-industrial baseline 1850–1900 (Fig. 1a). This is consistent with the CAM5 and MRI-AGCM experiments that show a similar TC frequency decline (~11% and ~13%, respectively) when anthropogenic forcing is included (Table 1). Both hemispheres contribute to the global reduction in the annual mean number of TCs (Fig. 1b,c). Importantly, a much larger decline (~23%) is evident after ~1950, coinciding with a period when warming signals in the climate system became evident in the historical record1,20 (Fig. 1d).
This result was supported by NOAA which reported:
In summary, the fires tragically burning in Maui were the result of wind and humidity changes due to the passing of Hurricane Dora. As confirmed by NOAA, warming has lowered the frequency of hurricanes by 13% and thus this type of event in Maui will happen less frequently as the planet continues to warm.