The West Is burning — How much blame goes to climate change?


Click to enlargeJohn McColgan, USDA

❝ So far this year, wildfires have scorched nearly 5 million acres in the U.S. That sounds like a lot, but compared to 2015, the season has been downright tame. Last year at this time, more than 9 million acres had already burned, and by the end of the year, that number would rise to more than 10 million — the most on record. In 2015, the Okanogan grew into the largest fire Washington had ever seen, breaking a record set just the year before. California recorded some of its most damaging fires, including the Valley Fire, which torched around 1,300 homes. More than 5 million acres burned in Alaska alone. But that’s not to say that this year has been without drama. For instance, California’s Soberanes Fire, which was sparked by an illegal campfire in July, is still smoldering. The effort it took to contain that blaze is believed to be one of the most expensive — if not the most expensive — wildfire-fighting operations ever.

❝ With wildfire, such superlatives have, paradoxically, become normal. Records are routinely smashed — for acreage burned, homes destroyed, firefighter lives lost and money spent fighting back flames. A study published earlier this year found that, between 2003 and 2012, the average area burned each year in Western national forests was 1,271 percent greater than it was in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Like the extreme hurricanes, heat waves and floods that have whipped, baked and soaked our landscape in recent years, such trends raise the question: Is this what climate change looks like?

❝ John Abatzoglou and his co-author, Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, estimate that human-caused climate change was responsible for nearly doubling the area burned in the West between 1984 and 2015. If the last few decades had been simply dry, instead of some of the hottest and driest on record, perhaps 10.4 million fewer acres would have burned, they say.

❝ Wildfire is particularly responsive to temperature increases because heat dries things out. It sucks moisture from twigs and needles in the forest the same way it does from clothes in a dryer, turning this vegetation into the kindling, or “fine fuel,” that gets wildfires going…

To shore up confidence in their estimates, they repeated the analyses in their study using eight different fuel-aridity metrics and then averaged the results. “One thing that gives me confidence is that all eight of these essentially lead to the same conclusion,” Williams said. “All eight have been increasing. All correlate well with fire.”

❝ In the end, they found that more than half of the observed increase in the dryness of fuels could be attributed to climate change. Fuel aridity, in turn, correlated very closely with fire activity for the time period they looked at — it explained about 75 percent of the variability in acreage burned from year to year. “That means that it is a top dog,” Williams said. “Correlation is not causation, but the correlation is so strong that it’s very hard to get a relationship like this if it’s not real.”

Williams added that as aridity increased, wildfire activity increased exponentially. “This isn’t a gradual process. Every few years we’re kind of entering a new epoch, where the potential for new fires is quite a bit bigger than it was a few years back.”

RTFA for more detail. Once again, science and maths point the finger at responsibility. Not only for cause; but, for the refusal to offer any constructive solutions. Congressional conservatives are so set in their commitment to stopping any change brought by our nation’s first Black president they’re willing to burn in a hell of their own creation.

Yes, of course, they won’t. Neither will the contributors to their demented campaign. The voters who keep them in office? That may be a different story.

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