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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Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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