Climate Change and the American Southwest: The New Normal

Aug 21, 2012

This summer, huge wildfires burned across the U.S., especially in dry western states. Though there were fewer fires than usual, they were uncommonly large. Fire scientists say these "mega fires" are becoming the new normal, and climate change that dries out these regions is making the situation worse. They're not sure these fires can be stopped, and the forests of the American Southwest may soon be lost.

In a five-part series on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on the vast changes that are turning the American Southwest into a tinder box.

The series also includes "Fire Forecast," an interactive map of current and predicted wildfire danger and current fires in the U.S. Updated daily with data from the U.S. Forest Service, "Fire Forecast" works on both desktop and mobile platforms, where it identifies users' locations to provide geo-targeted information.

A Century of No Fires
Morning Edition • Thursday, August 23

For centuries, the Southwestern Ponderosa pine forests burned every few years. It was a natural process for the most part, and it kept the ecosystem stable. Suddenly, the fires stopped -- for the past 100 years. But now that legacy has come back to haunt the Southwest, as mega fires beyond imagination are wiping out those forests and changing the face of the land. 

Mega Fires: The New Normal
All Things Considered • Thursday, August 23

Fire scientists are calling it "the new normal," as the vast Ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest are going up in smoke. These "mega fires" were once rare; now they are becoming commonplace. 

Climate, Drought and Fire 
Morning Edition • Friday, August 24

Climate scientists are leery of attributing any single event to climate change. But the pattern of heat waves and drought in the Southwestern U.S. leaves them with powerful evidence that climate change is at work, and taking a huge toll. 

Living With Fire
All Things Considered • Friday, August 24

Mega fires in the Southwest, created by climate change and decades of allowing forests to overgrow, are changing the ecosystem. Scientists and policy makers know they can't stop these fires once they've started, so they're trying to figure out how to live with the new normal. 

How A Tree Dies
Weekend Edition • Saturday, August 25

The punishing and prolonged droughts of the 21st Century in the U.S. and around the world are killing trees. Yet scientists really don't know much about how that happens. They are struggling to understand how a warming climate is involved. Their predictions thus far are grim: if things keep getting warmer, forests could die out, changing the landscape for centuries.