The Labor Day wildfires in 2020 were not only devastating in terms of the destruction they caused but also due to the extreme weather conditions that fueled them. A recent study conducted by Portland State University sheds light on the meteorological factors that led to the wildfires and the wider impacts of such extreme weather events.

Amplified Wave Pattern

One of the key findings of the study was the presence of an amplified wave pattern in the atmosphere, which was the strongest on record for that time of year. This wave pattern resulted in opposing weather extremes in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains. The high-pressure ridge responsible for warm temperatures in the Pacific Northwest also played a role in the spread of the wildfires.

Wind Event and Wildfires

As the wave pattern broke, similar to an ocean wave breaking, it brought about a strong wind event over western Oregon. This event, coupled with warm temperatures and dry easterly winds, fueled several large wildfires that led to the evacuation of thousands of people, the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses, and the loss of lives in Oregon. The impact of these wildfires was further exacerbated by the widespread smoke, leading to abnormally high levels of air pollution in the region.

An analysis of air parcel trajectories revealed that the dry air exacerbating the fire danger originated in western Canada at heights over 5,000 meters. As this dry air descended to the surface, it warmed up, increasing its dryness and further fueling the wildfires. Understanding the origin of this dry air is crucial for predicting and managing similar events in the future.

The same weather system that led to wildfires in the Pacific Northwest also brought record-breaking cold temperatures to parts of the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and the Great Plains. The study found that the position of the jet stream played a significant role in determining temperature extremes in different regions. While it’s not clear whether events like these are becoming more common, it is evident that overall temperatures are rising.

The study’s findings highlight the complex interplay of meteorological factors that contribute to extreme weather events like the Labor Day wildfires. As we continue to experience shifts in weather patterns due to climate change, it is essential to understand the underlying meteorology to better prepare for and respond to future events. Collaboration between researchers, scientists, and policymakers is crucial in developing strategies to mitigate the impacts of such events and build resilience in the face of a changing climate.


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