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How climate change contributed to the Marshall Fire

Colorado assistant state climatologist Dr. Becky Bolinger explained the role that a warming climate played in last month's Marshall Fire.

SUPERIOR, Colo. — Since it ravaged swaths of Boulder County on Dec. 30, there've been lots of questions surrounding the Marshall Fire, and specifically, how it started and grew so quickly.

Perhaps chief among those questions, however, is how and if climate change played a direct or indirect role in the start and rapid spread of the Marshall Fire. 

Some of the evidence is already there: An historically warm and dry six-month period leading up to the fire, coupled with an exceptionally wet spring just before the drought. Those two events taking place right after the other essentially created a tinder box of vegetation.

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The question is, though, whether climate change led to that devastating sequence of climatological events.

Dr. Becky Bolinger, Colorado's assistant state climatologist, said on Tuesday that the historically dry and warm fall leading up to the December fire can be directly attributed to a warming climate.

"So would we have had this drought without climate change? It’s possible," Dr. Bolinger said. "But climate change does make these droughts more likely to occur."

"Once you add in that climate change component, our (autumns) will be warmer than average and we are seeing increasing frequency of droughts. When you combine those together, you are increasing the likelihood that we are going to see more wildfire events like this."

Colorado experienced – by far – its hottest second half of a year on record over the final six months of 2021. It was also the driest final six month stretch of a year on record for much of the Front Range urban corridor, including Denver. A warming climate, Dr. Bolinger said, had led to an increasingly dry climate for the southwestern U.S.

"We have some parts of the country that are experiencing wetter conditions and more floods because of climate change," Dr. Bolinger said. "But we do know that the Western United States and the Southwest are more vulnerable to increased frequency of droughts and dryness. 

"A lot of climate models have been predicting this for a while, where they’ve talked about wet areas will get wetter and dry areas will get drier." 

You can watch the full interview with Dr. Bolinger about the Marshall Fire, how it started and its links to climate change in the video player at the top of this page.

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