Wired and The Conversation are Wrong, the 2023 Burning Man Rainstorm Wasn’t Caused By Climate Change

This year, the popular music festival Burning Man, which is held in the Black Rock Desert area of Nevada, was interrupted by a rainstorm that left many participants stranded. Wired and The Conversation, among other media outlets, attributed the rain storm, as well as the heat wave the area experienced a few weeks prior, to human-caused climate change. This is false. The recent rains were made more intense by the aftermath of hurricane Hilary, and neither “monsoon” rains, nor heatwaves, are an unprecedented or even rare in the region.

In a story posted by Wired, “Climate Change Has Finally Come for Burning Man,” contributor Chris Stokel-Walker writes that the downpour that trapped many festival-goers was caused by climate change. He wrote:

Extreme weather wrought by climate change, which is resulting in increasing amounts of rain being dumped on the southwestern US states at this time of year. “These sorts of heavy summer rainfall events in the region are expected, as the well-known southwestern summer monsoon is expected to yield larger amounts of rainfall in a warming climate,” says Michael Mann, presidential distinguished professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science.

A piece in The Conversation took a more balanced approach, pointing out that bad weather striking a festival isn’t new, that “[t]he legendary 1969 Woodstock festival in New York State was also a mud pit.”

Along with reasonably suggesting that festival planners take potential weather problems into account, The Conversation unfortunately also claims that “[a]s we heat the planet, we’re getting more frequent, intense and longer-lasting heatwaves across the world. We also know we’re seeing more and more intense short-duration downpours which cause flash flooding.”

These claims are also false.

To Dr. Mann and Wired’s credit, the summer monsoon is a real season in the southwest, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has “high confidence” that precipitation in general has increased over the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. This has not led to more flooding, however, according to the IPCC as discussed in Climate at a Glance: Floods.

Heatwaves likewise do not appear to be getting worse in the United States, and data show that most the U.S., including parts of Nevada, have seen fewer unusually hot days, as shown in the post “Media Chases ‘Climate Enhanced’ Heat Waves, Misses Data Showing They are Less Frequent.”

Hurricane Hilary, discussed in the Climate Realism post “No, BBC, Hurricane Hilary Was Not Unprecedented,” undoubtedly had an impact on the amount of rainfall Burning Man saw this year as the remnants of the storm moved inland from its landfall as a tropical storm in Southern California.

The monsoon season is a regular event known to scientists and nearby residents. Also, this isn’t the first time Burning Man itself was disturbed by a downpour. A brief Google search reveals many articles and blog posts from as far back as 2000 that describe rain around the same time of year creating sticky, impassible mud. Anyone operates an outdoors festival in the desert Southwest during the monsoon season should not be surprised to get heavy amounts of rain on occasion.

This particularly sticky, slippery mud, is also a known feature of the dry lakebed Burning Man takes place in. Its primary composition is gypsum, silica, and bentonite-clay type dirt that can form famous white-out dust storms when dry, and soak up water and turn into particularly sticky mud when wet. When it rains – and rains hard – in the desert, a dry lakebed is not the place to be.

As discussed, many times by Climate Realism, here, here, and here, for example, these kinds of drought and deluge patterns are normal for the region; desert rain does not soak easily into the ground, it runs off and collects, leading to flooding, including flash floods, which are dangerous.

While there were certainly unsafe and unsanitary conditions at Burning Man this year, the weather that led to it is not unprecedented. Burning Man has been rained out before, and none of the conditions that led to the situation can be honestly attributed to human emissions of carbon dioxide, as outlets like Wired and The Conversation are implying when they claim this kind of rainfall is indicative of climate change. Data does not show that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent or intense in the Southwestern United States. Climate change can’t be causing weather changes that data show aren’t occurring.

Linnea Lueken
Linnea Luekenhttps://www.heartland.org/about-us/who-we-are/linnea-lueken
Linnea Lueken is a Research Fellow with the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy. While she was an intern with The Heartland Institute in 2018, she co-authored a Heartland Institute Policy Brief "Debunking Four Persistent Myths About Hydraulic Fracturing."

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