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It's a Small World: How Oceans and Climates Can Affect Wildland Fires Thousands of Miles Away

This article is from Issue Climate Change - Vol. 14 No. 1.

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The scientists in this study were interested in three common periodic changes in sea surface temperatures, called oscillations. In particular, the scientists wanted to see how wildfires over the past 400 years aligned with the oscillations.

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Additional Resources for this Article:
Meet the scientists that contributed to this article:

"Science Topics" covered in this article:
  • Earth Science
  • Life Science
  • People and Science
  • Technology and Science

"Thinking About Science Themes" covered in this article:
Sometimes it is hard to study the past. This is especially true if the past you want to study was hundreds or thousands of years ago. It is made more difficult if the past you want to study has no written records. Some scientists, such as archeologists (är kē ä lə jists) and paleontologists (pā lē än tä lə jists), use items from the past as clues. Archeologists usually use human-made items, and paleontologists usually use natural clues. A dendrochronologist is a scientist who uses the natural clues found in tree rings (figure 1). In this study, the scientists used clues provided by old trees to help them understand the past. The scientists used information from tree rings. As a tree grows, it adds a layer of new growth on its trunk. For trees growing in dry areas, a lot of growth in a wet year shows up as a thick ring. In a dry year, the tree’s growth ring is thin. If something happens to the tree during a year, scientists can find clues in the tree’s growth ring for that year. For example, if there was a wildland fire and the tree was not burned up or killed, a scar may be evident in that year’s growth ring. Clues from a tree’s growth rings also help scientists determine the past climate of an area, as well as when and where wildland fires occurred (figure 2).
Specific "Thinking About Science" Themes:
  • Characteristics of Scientists
  • Scientific Topics

"Thinking About Environmental Themes" covered in this article:
You may have heard the expression, “It’s a small world.” It seems hard to believe, but many ecosystems on Earth are connected, even if they are located far apart. For example, glaciers in Arctic regions hold large amounts of fresh water when they are frozen and release that water when the temperature rises. This can cause changes in ocean temperatures and currents far from Earth’s Arctic regions. Another example is the Gulf Stream, which is a current of seawater moving up the eastern North American coast and finally eastward to northern Europe. Although Norway is located close to the Arctic region, the Gulf Stream keeps that country’s west coast free of ice all year. The oceans, in particular, affect many climatic (klī ma tik) and weather events on land. You are probably aware of the formation of hurricanes and cyclones, which form over ocean waters and sometimes reach coastal areas. Scientists have discovered that oceans can even affect the occurrence of wildland fire. The scientists in this study were interested in exploring the connection between ocean patterns, climate, and the timing of wildland fires in the Western United States.
Specific "Thinking About the Environment" Themes:
  • Climate
  • Ecosystems
  • Wildland Fire

NSE Standards covered in this article:
  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry (A)
  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms (C)
  • Nature of science (G)
  • Populations and ecosystems (C)
  • Science and technology in society (F)
  • Science as a human endeavor (G)
  • Structure of the earth system (D)
  • Understandings about science and technology (E)
  • Understandings about scientific inquiry (A)