The Vicious Climate-Wildfire Cycle
By Carly Phillips
With little fanfare and scant news coverage, fire season 2019 has arrived. Firefighters are already containing blazes in several states, including Colorado, Florida and Oklahoma, and seasonal outlooks suggest that significant wildfires are likely in parts of Alaska, Hawaii and the West Coast.
While forest management and human development have increased wildfire incidence and risk, climate change has exacerbated the trend of large fires and contributed to the lengthening of the fire season, in some cases making wildfires a year-round phenomenon. In the Western U.S., climate change is a major driver behind the near doubling in burned area that we've experienced over the past 35 years, and has contributed to an increase in the frequency and severity of fires, while lengthening the fire season in some regions.
Fires also simultaneously aggravate the impact of climate change by releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases into our atmosphere.
As the first act of this new fire season begins to unfold, we have a renewed opportunity and obligation to address the connections between wildfires, climate change and human activity, and take steps to interrupt this vicious cycle.
Climate Change Worsens Fires
Climate change is priming ecosystems in the Western U.S., Southeastern U.S. and Alaska to burn, while climate disasters like drought, rising temperatures and hurricanes compound wildfire risk and spread.
Drought and Rising Temperatures Change How Water Enters and Leaves Ecosystems
Drought is a natural occurrence. However, now we have a greater risk of hotter droughts. Rising temperatures dry out soils and trees. While drought means that less water is entering the ecosystem, rising temperatures mean that water is leaving more quickly. As temperatures rise, plants lose more water per unit of carbon dioxide, exacerbating the already dry and dangerous conditions produced by drought.
With less water coming into the ecosystem, plants become water stressed, which can kill huge numbers of plants if drought conditions persist. In extreme cases, drought itself can kill trees. Plants lose water when they perform photosynthesis, the process where plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make food, because they open their pores (aka stomata) to take in carbon dioxide, and water evaporates out in the process.
(This is such a big deal for plants that some have evolved special processes so they can avoid this water loss. In the desert, many plants only do gas exchange at night, when temperatures are lower and water-loss risk is the lowest.) #CAMLife #DinnerPartyFactoid
So in periods of extreme water stress like drought, they close those same pores to conserve what water they have. However, since plants aren't able to photosynthesize with their stomata closed, they then use up their carbon reserves and literally starve, known as carbon starvation.
Hydraulic failure is another way drought can lead to plant death: where air bubbles in the xylem (water transporting plant tissue) block water transport and the plant dies. When droughts are longer and more severe, the risk of hydraulic failure increases.
Alternatively, trees can also die from complications associated with drought, like an insect infestation that a healthy tree could usually defend against. Climate change has magnified the negative impacts of insects, as in the case of California's bark beetle. Cold temperatures have historically regulated the populations of these insects, but as climate change continues to shrink the temperature range that any one given ecosystem experiences, these cold temperatures just aren't happening anymore. These insects also grow and reproduce more quickly in warmer temperatures, which may further enhance their spread. While these outbreaks and subsequent tree deaths are changing the overall composition and structure of the ecosystem, they also can lead to a build-up of dry forest kindling. As a result, we can expect that forests in the West, Southeast and Alaska will continue to be full of dried out, ready-to-burn material.
Hurricanes Can Increase Fuel Loads in Landfall Areas
When hurricanes make landfall, violent winds can bring down huge amounts of timber. While landfalling hurricanes are rare, these natural disasters bring down huge amounts of timber that can easily become create fuel for wildfires. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo damaged approximately 4.39 million acres of forested land in South Carolina alone and generated widespread concerns about increased fire risk from larger fuel loads and higher wind speeds. In the past month, we've seen a similar phenomenon play out in Florida, where downed trees from Hurricane Michael aggravated a small debris fire and inhibited firefighters as they worked to access and contain the blaze. The risk this year, however, is not isolated to Florida, and threatens large portions of the southeastern U.S.
Fires Worsen Climate Change
On the flip side, the burning of trees, dead biomass and soil sends huge pulses of carbon to the atmosphere. Carbon enters an ecosystem when plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and incorporate it into their tissues. Over time, that carbon becomes integrated into soil, the largest land carbon pool, via plant roots and as dead plants decompose. These processes take time and the buildup of carbon stores is gradual. However, when fire roars through, all that carbon literally goes up in smoke.
In carbon-rich areas like boreal forests, arctic tundra and peatlands, the impact of fire on climate change is further amplified. The carbon in these ecosystems accounts for about 50 percent of global soil organic carbon or twice what is currently in the atmosphere as CO2. These ecosystems have built up carbon in their soil over MILLENNIA and a single fire can devastate these stocks.
In addition, fires release particulate black carbon that can magnify the effects of climate change in two ways. When suspended in the atmosphere, the particles trap heat, magnifying the warming of Earth's surface. Once these same particles disperse and settle on ice or snowy surfaces, they can decrease the reflectivity and melt ice in areas like Greenland, further warming the world.
We Worsen Both
Due to our prolonged and ever-growing addiction to fossil fuels, we're exacerbating climate change which feeds back to catastrophic wildfires. Our continued spewing of global warming gases to the atmosphere has caused many of the climatic complications discussed above. As a result, we're continuing to worsen a problem that we ourselves created.
Beyond fossil fuels, humans have aggravated wildfires by suppressing most fires, moving into wild areas, and simply igniting the fires ourselves. Total suppression has been the primary strategy of the U.S. federal government on nearly all conterminous U.S. land for decades, despite indigenous knowledge and practices that preceded this policy. Unlike homes, restaurants and businesses, our national forests have evolved with fire, requiring it for seed germination, competition reduction and general ecosystem maintenance. The absence of fire means that material (branches, logs and understory shrubs) that would normally burn off in regularly returning fires, has accumulated in these forests over time, creating fuel-rich conditions that drive these devastating wildfires. This suppression has also increased forest density creating greater competition for resources (especially in drought) and allowing fires to spread more easily through the forest.
Interrupting the Cycle
This vicious feedback loop where warming begets fire begets warming begets fire will continue without targeted, science-based intervention.
To interrupt the climate side of this cycle, we NEED to reduce our overall global warming emissions. This is achievable through a number of channels, including reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and moving to cleaner energy sources. We can also remove carbon from the atmosphere and protect the large stores of carbon that already exist. Regardless of the mechanism, addressing our current wildfire predicament and guarding against future disasters requires that we also address climate change and global warming emissions.
To interrupt the cycle from the fire side, we need to codify information from fire science into proactive fire management policy. Research demonstrates that prescribed burns, reduction of fuel loads, reestablishing historic fire return intervals (the frequency with which an ecosystem experiences a fire event), reducing expansion into the wildland urban interface and strategic preventative planning at the can all decrease the prevalence and intensity of the mega fires we've seen in recent years. On a more local and regional scale, fuel treatments and prescribed burns can be an effective strategy to reduce wildfire risk.
While science has revealed how we can work to resolve our current predicament, we are slow to follow through. Democrats, Republicans and bipartisan coalitions in the Senate have drafted legislation to address our nation's wildfire problem in the past 3 years, but none of these bills made it into law. In March 2018, we made progress with a budget that included a major restructuring of funds for fire fighting efforts, including a disaster fund for wildfires. However, President Trump's most recent budget proposal slashes funds for forestry in both the USDA and DOI, suggesting the progress made in 2018 may not be sustained.
Prescribed fires, where managers intentionally set and monitor fires towards ecological ends, are already used as a tool across the country to reduce fuel loads and mimic natural fire return intervals. The risks of this strategy, such as fire escape and increases in air pollution, often discourages decision makers from using this management option. While nearly 99 percent of prescribed fires are successful, those that escape are often the ones we hear about, like the Cerro Grande fire in 2000. As an alternative, manual removal of fuels (mechanical thinning) can reduce burn intensity and speed of fire spread while maintaining the ecological integrity of the ecosystem. In situations where prescribed fire is untenable, like following Hurricane Hugo, alternative strategies like fuel breaks and strategic build-up of suppression capacity can more effectively reduce risks of catastrophic wildfires.
Despite the bleakness of our current situation and the dangers that wildfires pose, we have the knowledge and skills to break this vicious cycle. 2019 seems as good a time as any to start.
Carly Phillips is the Kendall Fellow for Protecting Carbon in Alaska's Boreal Forests with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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Google's New Timelapse Shows 37 Years of Climate Change Anywhere on Earth, Including Your Neighborhood
Google Earth's latest feature allows you to watch the climate change in four dimensions.
The new feature, called Timelapse, is the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017. It is also, as far as its developers know, the largest video taken of Earth on Earth. The feature compiles 24 million satellite photos taken between 1984 and 2020 to show how human activity has transformed the planet over the past 37 years.
"Visual evidence can cut to the core of the debate in a way that words cannot and communicate complex issues to everyone," Google Earth Director Rebecca Moore wrote in a blog post Thursday.
Moore herself has been directly impacted by the climate crisis. She was one of many Californians evacuated because of wildfires last year. However, the new feature allows people to witness more remote changes, such as the melting of ice caps.
"With Timelapse in Google Earth, we have a clearer picture of our changing planet right at our fingertips — one that shows not just problems but also solutions, as well as mesmerizingly beautiful natural phenomena that unfold over decades," she wrote.
Some climate impacts that viewers can witness include the melting of 12 miles of Alaska's Columbia Glacier between 1984 and 2020, Fortune reported. They can also watch the disintegration of the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. The changes are not limited to the impacts of global warming, however.
Moore said the developers had identified five themes, and Google Earth offers a guided tour for each of them. They are:
- Forest change, such as deforestation in Bolivia for soybean farming
- Urban growth, such as the quintupling of Las Vegas sprawl
- Warming temperatures, such as melting glaciers and ice sheets
- Sources of energy, such as the impacts of coal mining on Wyoming's landscape
- Fragile beauty, such as the flow of Bolivia's Mamoré River
However, the feature also allows you to see smaller-scale change. You can enter any location into the search bar, including your local neighborhood, CNN explained. The feature does not offer the detail of Street View, Gizmodo noted. It is intended to show large changes over time, rather than smaller details like the construction of a road or home.
The images for Timelapse were made possible through collaboration with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey's Landsat satellites and the European Union's Copernicus program and Sentinel satellites. Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab helped develop the technology.
To use Timelapse, you can either visit g.co/Timelapse directly or click on the Ship's Wheel icon in Google Earth, then select Timelapse. Moore said the feature would be updated annually with new images of Earth's alterations.
"We hope that this perspective of the planet will ground debates, encourage discovery and shift perspectives about some of our most pressing global issues," she wrote.
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By Asher Rosinger
Imagine seeing a news report about lead contamination in drinking water in a community that looks like yours. It might make you think twice about whether to drink your tap water or serve it to your kids – especially if you also have experienced tap water problems in the past.
In a new study, my colleagues Anisha Patel, Francesca Weaks and I estimate that approximately 61.4 million people in the U.S. did not drink their tap water as of 2017-2018. Our research, which was released in preprint format on April 8, 2021, and has not yet been peer reviewed, found that this number has grown sharply in the past several years.
Other research has shown that about 2 million Americans don't have access to clean water. Taking that into account, our findings suggest that about 59 million people have tap water access from either their municipality or private wells or cisterns, but don't drink it. While some may have contaminated water, others may be avoiding water that's actually safe.
Water insecurity is an underrecognized but growing problem in the U.S. Tap water distrust is part of the problem. And it's critical to understand what drives it, because people who don't trust their tap water shift to more expensive and often less healthy options, like bottled water or sugary drinks.
I'm a human biologist and have studied water and health for the past decade in places as diverse as Lowland Bolivia and northern Kenya. Now I run the Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. To understand water issues, I talk to people and use large datasets to see whether a problem is unique or widespread, and stable or growing.
An Epidemic of Distrust
According to our research, there's a growing epidemic of tap water distrust and disuse in the U.S. In a 2020 study, anthropologist Sera Young and I found that tap water avoidance was declining before the Flint water crisis that began in 2014. In 2015-2016, however, it started to increase again for children.
Our new study found that in 2017-2018, the number of Americans who didn't drink tap water increased at an alarmingly high rate, particularly for Black and Hispanic adults and children. Since 2013-2014 – just before the Flint water crisis began – the prevalence of adults who do not drink their tap water has increased by 40%. Among children, not consuming tap has risen by 63%.
To calculate this change, we used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a nationally representative survey that releases data in two-year cycles. Sampling weights that use demographic characteristics ensure that the people being sampled are representative of the broader U.S. population.
Racial Disparities in Tap Water Consumption
Communities of color have long experienced environmental injustice across the U.S. Black, Hispanic and Native American residents are more likely to live in environmentally disadvantaged neighborhoods, with exposure to water that violates quality standards.
Our findings reflect these experiences. We calculated that Black and Hispanic children and adults are two to three times more likely to report not drinking their tap water than members of white households. In 2017-2018, roughly 3 out of 10 Black adults and children and nearly 4 of 10 Hispanic adults and children didn't drink their tap water. Approximately 2 of 10 Asian Americans didn't drink from their tap, while only 1 of 10 white Americans didn't drink their tap water.
When children don't drink any water on a given day, research shows that they consume twice as many calories from sugary drinks as children who drink water. Higher sugary drink consumption increases risk of cavities, obesity and cardiometabolic diseases. Drinking tap water provides fluoride, which lowers the risk of cavities. Relying on water alternatives is also much more expensive than drinking tap water.
A4: Choosing to drink fluoridated tap water over sugar-sweetened beverages to quench thirst is vital to protecting… https://t.co/3tm8wuWjeZ— Oral Health Watch (@Oral Health Watch)1600795750.0
What Erodes Trust
News reports – particularly high-visibility events like advisories to boil water – lead people to distrust their tap water even after the problem is fixed. For example, a 2019 study showed that water quality violations across the U.S. between 2006 and 2015 led to increases in bottled water purchases in affected counties as a way to avoid tap water, and purchase rates remained elevated after the violation.
The Flint water crisis drew national attention to water insecurity, even though state and federal regulators were slow to respond to residents' complaints there. Soon afterward, lead contamination was found in the water supply of Newark, New Jersey; the city is currently replacing all lead service lines under a legal settlement. Elsewhere, media outlets and advocacy groups have reported finding tap water samples contaminated with industrial chemicals, lead, arsenic and other contaminants.
Many other factors can cause people to distrust their water supply, including smell, taste and appearance, as well as lower income levels. Location is also an issue: Older U.S. cities with aging infrastructure are more prone to water shutoffs and water quality problems.
It's important not to blame people for distrusting what comes out of their tap, because those fears are rooted in history. In my view, addressing water insecurity requires a two-part strategy: ensuring that everyone has access to clean water, and increasing trust so people who have safe water will use it.
As part of his proposed infrastructure plan, President Joe Biden is asking Congress for $111 billion to improve water delivery systems, replace lead pipelines and tackle other contaminants. The plan also proposes improvements for small water systems and underserved communities.
These are critical steps to rebuild trust. Yet, in my view, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should also provide better public education about water quality testing and targeted interventions for vulnerable populations, such as children and underserved communities. Initiatives to simplify and improve water quality reports can help people understand what's in their water and what they can do if they think something is wrong with it.
Who delivers those messages is important. In areas like Flint, where former government officials have been indicted on charges including negligence and perjury in connection with the water crisis, the government's word alone won't rebuild trust. Instead, community members can fill this critical role.
Another priority is the 13%-15% of Americans who rely on private well water, which is not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. These households are responsible for their own water quality testing. Public funding would help them test it regularly and address any problems.
Public distrust of tap water in the U.S. reflects decades of policies that have reduced access to reliable, safe drinking water in communities of color. Fixing water lines is important, but so is giving people confidence to turn on the tap.
Asher Rosinger is an assistant professor of biobehavioral health, anthropology, and demography and director of the Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory at Penn State University.
Disclosure statement: Asher Rosinger receives funding from the National Science Foundation on an unrelated project. This work was supported by the Ann Atherton Hertzler Early Career Professorship funds, and the Penn State Population Research Institute (NICHD P2CHD041025). The funders had no role in the research or interpretation of results.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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A new report promoting urgent climate action in Australia has stirred debate for claiming that global temperatures will rise past 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next decade.
Australia's Climate Council released the report on Thursday. The council is an independent organization of climate scientists and experts on health, renewable energy and policy who work to inform the Australian public on the climate crisis. But their latest claim is causing controversy.
"Multiple lines of evidence show that limiting global warming to 1.5°C above the preindustrial level, without significant overshoot and subsequent drawdown, is now out of reach due to past inaction," Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Prof. Christopher Field of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment wrote in the foreword. "The science is telling us that global average temperature rise will likely exceed 1.5°C during the 2030s, and that long-term stabilization at warming at or below 1.5°C will be extremely challenging."
The report is titled "Aim high, go fast: Why emissions need to plummet this decade," and as the name suggests, it is ultimately concerned with urging more robust climate action on the part of the Australian government. The report calls for the country to reduce emissions by 75 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035 in order to achieve the long-term goals of the Paris agreement, which means limiting warming to well below two degrees Celsius.
"The world achieving net zero by 2050 is at least a decade too late and carries a strong risk of irreversible global climate disruption at levels inconsistent with maintaining well-functioning human societies," the authors wrote.
The report further argues that global temperatures are likely to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the 2030s based on existing temperature increases; locked-in warming from emissions that have already occurred; evidence from past climate changes and the percentage of the carbon budget that has already been used.
The report isn't a call to give up on the Paris agreement. It is possible that global temperatures could swell past 1.5 degrees Celsius but still be reduced by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even if temperatures do exceed 1.5 degrees, every degree of warming that can be prevented makes a difference.
"Basically we can still hold temperature rise to well below 2C and do that without overshoot and drawdown," Will Steffen, lead report author from the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, told Australia's ABC News. "Every tenth of a degree actually does matter — 1.8C is better than 1.9C, and is much better than 2C."
However, some outside scientists question both the accuracy and effectiveness of the report's claim. Both Adjunct Professor Bill Hare from Murdoch University and Dr. Carl-Freidrich Schleussner from Humboldt University told ABC News they have been trying to contact the Climate Council about its 1.5 overshoot claim for months. They said that it went against other major reports, including the UN Environment Program Gap Report and the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5˚C.
"The big challenge their report reinforces is the need for urgent action to get on that 1.5C pathway, [so] it's very paradoxical to me that they've chosen to attack that target," Dr. Hare told ABC News.
However, Scientist Andy Pitman from the Center of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales told The Guardian that the report's assessment was correct.
"It's simply not possible to limit warming to 1.5C now," he said. "There's too much inertia in the system and even if you stopped greenhouse gas emissions today, you would still reach 1.5C [of heating]."
However, one aspect everyone agreed on involved the importance of lowering emissions as soon as possible.
"[There is] absolute fundamental agreement on the task at hand, which is to get emissions to plummet," Simon Bradshaw, report author and Climate Council head of research, told The Guardian.
French winemakers are facing devastating grape loss from the worst frost in decades, preceded by unusually warm temperatures, highlighting the dangers to the sector posed by climate change.
"An important share of the harvest has been lost. It's too early to give a percentage estimate, but in any case it's a tragedy for the winegrowers who have been hit," said Christophe Chateau, director of communications at the Bordeaux Wine Council, told CNN.
Climate change, caused by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, has pushed winegrowing seasons earlier, putting crops at higher risk of cold — and wildfires supercharged by climate change also threaten American vignerons and farmworkers as well.
"I think it's good for people to understand that this is nature, climate change is real, and to be conscious of the effort that goes into making wine and the heartbreak that is the loss of a crop," Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits told Wine Enthusiast.
As reported by Wine Enthusiast:
Last week, images of candlelit French vineyards flooded social media. Across the country, winemakers installed bougies, or large wax-filled metal pots, among the vines to prevent cold air from settling in during an especially late frost.
With temperatures in early April as low as 22°F, and following an unseasonably warm March, this year's frost damage may be the worst in history for French winegrowers. Every corner of France reports considerable losses, from Champagne to Provence, and Côtes de Gascogne to Alsace. As a result, there will likely be very little French wine from the 2021 vintage reaching U.S. shores.
For a deeper dive:
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Climate change could make it harder to find a good cup of coffee, new research finds. A changing climate might shrink suitable areas for specialty coffee production without adaptation, making coffee taste blander and impacting the livelihoods of small farms in the Global South.
Published in Scientific Reports on Wednesday, the study focused on regions in Ethiopia, Africa's largest coffee-producing nation. Although studies have previously documented the impact of climate change on coffee production, what's less understood is how varying climates could change the flavors of specialty coffee, the researchers wrote.
The team aimed to fill this gap. Their results provide a glimpse into how future climate change could impact local regions and economies that rely on coffee cultivation, underscoring the value of local adaptation measures.
Researchers analyzed how 19 different climate factors, such as mean temperatures and rainfall levels, would affect the cultivation of five distinct specialty coffee types in the future, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) reported. Although researchers found that areas suitable for growing "average quality coffee" may actually increase over time with climate change, regions where specialty coffee is grown will shrink — a pending problem in light of the global demand for high-quality coffee.
"This is an issue not just for coffee lovers, but for local agricultural value creation," Abel Chemura, the study's lead author, told the PIK.
Coffee profiles rely on specific climate patterns for their unique flavors, levels of acidity and fragrances. But in a warmer climate, the coffee cherry — the fruit picked from a coffee plant — matures faster than the bean inside, making for a lower quality cup of coffee, the PIK reported.
For example, the sought-after Yirgacheffe variety of coffee, which is cultivated in southwestern Ethiopia, could lose more than 40 percent of its suitable growth area by the end of the century, PIK reported. This could impact small farms and threaten Ethiopia's economy, the researchers noted.
"If one or more coffee regions lose their specialty status due to climate change this has potentially grave ramifications for the smallholder farmers in the region," Christoph Gornott, co-author of the study, told the PIK. "If they were forced to switch to growing conventional, less palatable and bitter coffee types, they would all of the sudden compete with industrial production systems elsewhere that are more efficient." In a country where coffee exports account for nearly a third of all agricultural exports, "this could prove fatal," Gornott added.
Climate change impacts on coffee production are not unique to Ethiopia. In Columbia's mountainous coffee-growing regions, temperatures are warming by 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit every decade, according to Yale Environment 360. Extreme levels of precipitation, which are becoming more common, also impact production, as they spread insect and fungal diseases.
"In earlier times, the climate was perfect for coffee," one small farmer in Columbia told Yale Environment 360. "In the period of flowering, there was summer. During harvest, there was winter. But from 2008 onward, this changed and we now don't know when it will be summer, when the coffee will blossom."
But researchers say there are glimmers of hope, emphasizing the importance of local adaptation measures that are designed for particular climates and communities. For example, in regions where temperature is an important factor for specialty coffee cultivation, the researchers suggest improved agroforestry systems that could maintain canopy temperatures, a promising step toward sustaining the "availability and taste of one of the world's most beloved beverages and, more importantly, on economic opportunities in local communities of the Global South," Gornott concluded.