Tag Archives: Wildfires

Tragic and Unprecedented California Deadly Fire

The news is bad, and is being widely covered. Here I just want to make a remark or two about the link between big fires and global warming.

As of last report, there are 15 known dead and 150 or more missing. Hopefully they are only virtually and not actually missing; there is a lot of confusion and communication resources are in many cases down.

Wild fires are tricky in more ways then one. It is easy to get caught in one (I’ve manage that myself), and it is hard to predict or fully understand why some years have more than others. There has been a long term trend nationally towards fewer wild fires, for several reasons, most of which have to do with human activities. The most significant part of that trend is that humans caused many, huge, often deadly wild fires in the past. The worst wildfire ever in Minnesota, in terms of Death toll, was during World War I and had mainly to do with farming and railroads being a bad mix. Cutting lots of land to farm provides the fuel, and in those days, railroads were travelling tinderboxes sparking fires everywhere they went. Continue reading Tragic and Unprecedented California Deadly Fire

Global Warming: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Ice

Focusing on Earth, but also a few tidbits on wind, fire, and ice, some current news and observations about global warming.

Earth

As humans release greenhouse gas pollutants (mainly CO2) into the atmosphere, the surface of the Earth, and the top 2000 meters of the ocean, heat up. But some of the CO2 is absorbed into plant tissues and soil, as well as in the ocean or other standing water. Historically, about 30% of the extra CO2 is absorbed into the ocean, and another 30% converted into (mainly) plant tissue. We hope that enough CO2 is absorbed that the effects of greenhouse gas pollution is attenuated, at least a little. Unfortunately, there are two things that can go wrong. First, these “Carbon sinks” — places where the CO2 is either stored or converted into Carbon-based tissue, could stop working. Second, some of these Carbon sinks could reverse course and start releasing, rather than absorbing, Carbon.

The CO2 released in the atmosphere during any given time period starts a process of warming that takes years to finish. We know how much CO2 we have added to the atmosphere (we went from the mid 200’s ppm, parts per million, before this all started to 400ppm). We know how much we are currently releasing and we can estimate how much we will be releasing in coming years. Putting this all together with some very fancy physics and math, we can estimate the amount of surface warming over coming years. This calculation includes the Carbon sinks. If the Carbon sinks stop sinking Carbon, or worse, start releasing previously trapped Carbon, then future warming (next year, next decade, over the next century) will be greater than previously expected.

And there is now evidence that this is happening.

Andy Skuce has written up two pieces, here and here, that explain this. It is also written up here, and the original research is here.

This research suggests that some natural Carbon sinks are slowing down in the amount of Carbon they take in, or perhaps switching to releasing Carbon.

The problem is actually very simple to understand. In order for CO2 to be converted to O2 (free oxygen) and some combination of C and other elements (to make plant tissue), the other elements have to be available in sufficient quantity. For many terrestrial ecosystems, CO2 was a limiting factor (keeping water and sunlight out of the picture or constant). So, adding CO2 means more plant growth. But at some point, the other elements that are required to make plant tissue, such as Nitrogen and Phosphorous (otherwise known as fertilizer) are insufficient in abundance to allow plants to use that CO2. This would reduce or flatten out the amount of extra CO2 that can be trapped in solid form. At this point, the terrestrial biomass starts to release, rather than absorb, CO2.

Why would the terrestrial Carbon sink not simply stop absorbing Carbon, and start to release it? Well, because I as fibbing a little when I said this is simple. The more realistic version of the system has Carbon going in and out of the different parts of the system (atmosphere, ocean water, plant tissue, etc.). With warming temperatures, we expect the release of Carbon from terrestrial systems to increase in rate. So, before nutrient limitation is released, there is Carbon going in and Carbon going out, but on average, mostly going in. With Nutrient limitation on the system, when there isn’t enough Nitrogen or Phosphorus to match up with the CO2, the release continues while the absorption stops. But because of warming, the release not only continues, but increases. So, in coming decades, the net effect is that parts of the terrestrial ecosystem contributes to atmospheric CO2.

At present, climate scientists (mainly in the context of the IPCC) have estimates of future warming that involve estimates of how much CO2 we add to the atmosphere. All the known factors have been taken into account, including the Carbon cycle (which includes Carbon moving between the atmosphere, the ocean, and the plant and soil system at the surface. This research indicates that the numbers have to be changed to account for nutrient saturation.

This graph shows how it works. The black line is the increase in plant growth as originally modeled under a “high-emissions” scenario. This shows a 63% increase in plant growth by the end of the century owing to CO2 fertilization. The red line indicates the amount of extra plant growth that would actually happen due to limitations of Nitrogen. The blue lie indicates the amount of plant growth due to the limitation of Phosphorus. These are 29% and 20%, respectively.

wieder-et-al-2015-fig1a_599x329

If we include the increase in release of Carbon due to warming conditions (basically, more and faster rotting of dead plant tissue), the existing models produce the black line in the graph below. There is still an increase in plant growth, and the plant-based Carbon sink is still working. If limitations on nitrogen and phosphorus are considered, we get the red and blue lines.

wieder-et-al-2015-fig1b_600x329

This amounts, approximately, to adding about 14 years of human greenhouse gas pollution (at the current rate) to the time period under consideration (from now to 2100).

So that’s the news when it comes to climate change and the Earth. But what about the wind?

Wind

No new research here, just an observation. Where does wind really matter? Where do you really feel the wind? Wind is the expression of the large scale climate system (modified by local conditions) which is in turn the result of the spinning of the Earth and the heating of the planet unevenly by the sun, like it does. A valid rule of thumb is more heat, more wind, but that is a gross oversimplification. At a more complex level, more heat equals more wind doing different things in different places than usual, and also more water vapor in the air, and all this has to do with those times and places where we really feel the wind the most: Storms.

Tenney Naumer (of Climate Change: The Next Generation fame) came across an amazing graphic of the Earth, looking mainly at the Pacific, showing some wind.

StormWorld

The graphic is from here, and I added the “Storm World” just for fun. Except it isn’t really fun. The date of this graphic is, I think, July 5th or 6th.

Your homework assignment is to identify the named tropical storms shown in the graphic.

Fire

A few years ago there were some big fires. Australia burned, there were fires in California, Texas, Arizona, various parts of Canada, etc. Climate change and fire experts noted that there is an increase in fires because of global warming, but others argued that there was no significant increase, and we had had periods of abundant fires in the past. In truth, there was evidence of an increase, though maybe not very convincing to some. Also, past inclement conditions are a thing … recent global warming did not invent bad weather or extensive wildfires. But some of those past periods, like the 1930s in the US, are not evidence against current climate change, but rather, evidence of what to expect with climate change. Those periods are only barely as severe as the present state, are usually regional and not global, happened after greenhouse gas pollution was very much a thing and between periods of suppression of warming by aerosols (from volcanoes or industrial pollution). So they matter, but not because they disprove climate change (they don’t) but rather because these past events are windows into the future. But I digress.

The point is, a few years ago, those who are rightfully alarmed about climate change were pointing out the problem of increased wild fires referring mainly to research indicating a dramatic increase in wildfire potential, along with some evidence of actual increased wildfires. And others argued that until there were a lot more flames, there was not a problem.

Well, now we have the flames.

Yesterday (anecdote warning, this is not data) I went outside to check the mail and was assailed by a bank of smoke moving through my neighborhood. It smelled really bad. Assuming there was a house on fire, I dashed back into the house to grab my cell phone, in case I had to dial 911. Returning outside, I walked around and did not see anything obvious burning, but the smoke was coming in from the north. That ruled out a burning oil tank train (the tracks are from the south) and the local munitions dump on fire (that is to the west). But I still couldn’t see where the smoke was coming from. So, I hopped in the car and drove north a couple of blocks, and by the time I got to the nearby Interstate, it became clear that the smoke was simply everywhere, pretty uniformly.

I then guessed at the cause, and returned to my computer where I checked the Wundermap and some other sources. Yup: it was Canada and Alaska, thousands of miles away, pretty much on fire. Here are two graphics to illustrate this.

From the Wundermap:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 5.35.22 PM

And from here:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.23.35 PM

Ice

Glacial ice is melting, and it is melting faster every year. Earlier in the year we learned that Alaska (on fire, see above) has been losing mountain glacier and ice sheet water at an alarming rate. Now, we are seeing an amazing spike in melting on the surface of Greenland. From here:

greenland_melt_area_plot

The graph is of ice melt extent so far this year. The blue dotted line is the average over recent decades as in dicated. The grey area is 2 standard deviations around that average. The vast majority of observations (nearly 100%) would be in that grey area. The red line is this year. This is what you call unprecedented melting.

Why is this melting happening? Because Greenland is unusually warm, but as expected under global warming. Some of this melted ice will refreeze in the winter. Much of it, however, is going into the sea.

Global Warming Is Heating Up

Humans have been releasing greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere for a long time now, and this has heated up the surface of the planet. This, in turn, has caused a number of alarming changes in weather. Several current weather events exemplify the effects of climate change.

Record High Temperatures Being Shattered


South Asia recently experienced a number of killer heatwaves, and that is still going on in the region. More recently, we’ve seen long standing record highs being broken in the American West. The Capital Climate group recently tweeted this list of records:

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 7.17.01 PM

Hot Whopper puts this in some context and adds some other sources, here.

The Weather Channel has this map of current western heat alerts:

map_specnewsdct-51_ltst_4namus_enus_980x551

More on the western heat wave here at Weather Underground.

The extreme heat has even surged north into Canada. Cranbrook, in far southeast British Columbia at an elevation of about 3,000 feet, set a new all-time record high of 98 degrees (36.8 degrees Celsius) Sunday, according to The Weather Network.

Even Revelstoke, British Columbia – 130 miles north of the U.S. border, about 1,500 feet above sea level and better known for skiing – reached an amazing 103 degrees (39.5 degrees Celsius) Sunday.

Great Britain is sweltering “on the hottest July day on record,” according to Jessica Elgot at the Guardian.

As temperatures reached 36.7 °C at Heathrow, commuters were facing difficult journeys on the London Underground. One platform at Kings Cross underground station recorded 33 °C however the temperature on tubes is believed to be even hotter.

Charlotte Dalen, originally from Norway but now living in London, said: “It was pretty warm and very smelly. People were waving pamphlets to keep cool but it didn’t look like it was helping.”

The map at the top of the post of current heat anomaly estimates across the globe is from Climate Reanalyser.

An Unprecedented Tropical Cyclone

Raquel is a Pacific Tropical Cyclone (hurricane) which is the earliest to form in the region (The “Queensland Zone” as tracked by the Australian meteorologists) in recorded history. From the Bulletin:

TROPICAL Cyclone Raquel has formed in the south-west Pacific near the Solomon Islands, triggering the earliest cyclone warning on record issued for the Queensland zone.

“Certainly it’s a unique scenario,” Jess Carey, a spokesman from the bureau’s Queensland office, said. “Since we’ve been tracking cyclones with satellite-based technology, we haven’t seen one in July.”

The storm became a category 1 cyclone early on Wednesday morning and had a central pressure of 999 hPa about 410 km north of the Solomon Islands’ capital of Honiara as of just before 5am, AEST, the Bureau of Meteorology said. It is forecast to strengthen to a category 2 system on Thursday.

“The cyclone is moving southwest at about 16 km per hour and should gradually intensify over the next 24 hours as it approaches the Solomon Islands,” the bureau said in a statement. “The system will remain very far offshore and does not pose a threat to the Queensland coast.”

The official cyclone season runs from November 1-April 30. Any cyclone after May or before October is considered unusual.

Wildfires Gone Wild

Over the last several days and continuing, there have been extensive and unprecedented fires in the west as well. Drought in California has increased fire danger, and now things are starting to burn. This year the fires started earlier, with one of the largest fires having burned during a normally low-fire month, February. Also, fires are burning where they are normally rare. According to Will Greenberg at the Washington Post..

Cal Fire has already responded to 1,000 more incidents this year than they see on average annually. The agency reached that same landmark last year as well — but in September.

By the end of June, officials had fought nearly 3,200 fires.

In total, Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service have responded to fires stretching over 65,755 acres so far this year.

And this is just the beginning for California’s 2015 wildfire season.

Meanwhile, in Washington, where it has been dry and hot, hundreds have been forced to flee from some amazing wildfires. From the Guardian:

The wildfires hit parts of central and eastern Washington state over the weekend as the state is struggling with a severe drought. Mountain snowpack is at extremely low levels, and about one-fifth of the state’s rivers and streams are at record low levels.

Eastern Washington has been experiencing temperatures into the 100s, and last week Washington governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation that allows state resources to quickly be brought in to respond to wildfires.

In Alaska,

The number of Alaska’s active wildfires is literally off the charts, according to a map recently released by the state’s Division of Forestry.

Over 700 fires have burned so far this summer, the most in the state’s history, and that number is only expected to get bigger as the state is experiencing higher temperatures, lower humidity and more lightning storms than usual, said Kale Casey, a public information officer for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, which serves as a focal point for state agencies involved in wildland fire management and suppression.

Here’s a map of current Alaskan fires:
Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 7.35.08 PM

California Drought Still A Drought

And, of course, from the US Drought Monitor
Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 7.36.52 PM

The top of the Earth burns, makes Global Warming Worse

AGW -> AA -> QR -> WW -> WF -> DS -> A- -> AGW

The great cycle of climate change. Anthropogenic Global Warming has resulted in a relatively increased warming of the poles, which changes the dynamic of jet streams forming thus causing quasi-ressonant (stuck in place) Rossby Waves (curvy slow moving jet streams) which then fuels Weather Whiplash (or Weather Weirding if you prefer) which at the moment is causing unprecedented wild fires especially in Western Canada and Siberia, which causes a darkening of glacial surfaces in Greenland (Dark Snow) which decreases albedo which then contributes to both Arctic Amplification and Global Warming.

It’s happening now at your local planet.

Here’s some information about the fires, some older, some newer:

<li><a href="http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/18/us/washington-wildfires/index.html?hpt=hp_t2"><strong>Wildfires drive residents from homes in Washington state and Canada</strong></a></li>


<li><a href="http://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/polar-jet-stream-wrecked-by-climate-change-fuels-unprecedented-wildfires-over-canada-and-siberia/"><strong>Polar Jet Stream Wrecked By Climate Change Fuels Unprecedented Wildfires Over Canada and Siberia</strong></a></li>

<li><a href="http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/07/17/forest-fires-in-canada-confirm-predictions-of-unprecedented-wildfire-activity/"><strong>Forest fires in Canada confirm predictions of ‘unprecedented’ wildfire activity</strong></a></li>

<li><a href="http://www.rferl.org/content/siberian-forest-wildfires-triple-within-three-days/25398654.html"><strong>Siberian Forest Wildfires Triple Within Three Days</strong></a></li>

Photo from here.

Is Global Warming Causing More and Bigger Fires in Colorado?

High temperatures and dry conditions have caused the outbreak, increased intensity, and rapid spread of numerous wildfires in Colorado. Again. Fires happen, but the number, size, and intensity of wildfires in the western United States has been very high in recent years, and this is caused by global warming.

Global warming causes more rain and more frequent and more severe storm lines. More rain causes more plant growth in otherwise arid regions, and severe storms knock a lot of that vegetation down. This causes more light to get to the ground, so “ladder” vegetation, which enhances fire spread, increases, and the fallen branches add to the fuel that has already been increased by the increased rainfall.

Global warming causes drought, when it isn’t busy causing rain. So, areas with increased amounts of fuel that has been configured to increase fire intensity and spreadability become tinder-rich. Along with the drought comes increased spring and summer temperatures, also caused by global warming and this dries out the vegetation making it much more likely for fires to start, grow quickly, spread, and become large.

We’ve known this for some time, and there is all sorts of evidence to back up the assertion that global warming is the reason for the fire seasons on steroids effect we are seeing now (links to some of this are provided below).

So, yes.

James West has written a very thorough piece demonstrating all these connections, and more, in Mother Jones: How Climate Change Makes Wildfires Worse.

And here’s some backup information for you:

<li><a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/07/060710084004.htm">More Large Forest Fires Linked To Climate Change</a></li>

<li><a href="http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v470/n7334/full/nature09763.html">Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes</a></li>


<li><a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/04/climate-change-america-wildfire-season?CMP=twt_gu">Climate change causing US wildfire season to last longer, Congress told</a></li>

<li><a href="http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/ES11-00345.1">Climate change and disruptions to global fire activity</a></li>

<li><a href="http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2012GL051000/abstract">Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes</a></li>


<li><a href="https://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/news/1036/record-high-temperatures-far-outpace-record-lows-across-us">RECORD HIGH TEMPERATURES FAR OUTPACE RECORD LOWS ACROSS U.S.</a></li>

<li><a href="http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/x09-153#.Ubnq5fb7289">Potential changes in monthly fire risk in the eastern Canadian boreal forest under future climate change</a></li>

More on Climate Change here.

Photo Credit: jonathanpercy via Compfight cc