Wildfires and Weather Extremes: It's Not Coincidence, it's Climate Change
By Jeff Berardelli
This story was originally published on CBS News on September 9, 2020. All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication.
Right on the heels of arguably the West Coast's most intense heat wave in modern history comes the most ferocious flare-up of catastrophic wildfires in recent memory. Meanwhile, just a few hundred miles east, a 60-degree temperature drop over just 18 hours in Wyoming and Colorado was accompanied by an extremely rare late-summer dumping of up to 2 feet of snow.
It's not coincidence, it's climate change.
These kinds of dystopian weather events, happening often at the same time, are exactly what scientists have been warning about for decades. While extreme weather is a part of the natural cycle, the recent uptick in the ferocity and frequency of these extremes, scientists say, is evidence of an acceleration of climate impacts, some of which were underestimated by climate computer models.
"This is yet another example of where uncertainty is not our friend," says Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. "As we learn more, we are finding that many climate change impacts, including these sorts of extreme weather events, are playing out faster and with greater magnitude than our models predicted."
On Wednesday NOAA released its latest State of the Climate Report, which finds that just during the month of August the U.S. was hit by four different billion-dollar disasters: two hurricanes, huge wildfires and an extraordinary Midwest derecho.
Just one such extreme event can strain emergency resources — a situation West Coast firefighters find themselves in now. However, in two dramatic cases this summer, the nation was hit simultaneously with concurrent catastrophes, some of which had no precedent in modern history. It's a concept scientists call compound events, and it is necessary to factor these confluences into future projections to properly estimate risk, response and resources.
In mid-August the West suffered through an extended heat wave which saw Death Valley surge to 130 degrees, the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth. The tinderbox conditions caused by the heat, along with a rare lightning outbreak, sparked the first round of major wildfires in California this season, escalating into three of the four largest fires in state history. At about the same time a powerful derecho caused billions of dollars in damage in Iowa and Illinois, and Hurricane Laura plowed into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana as a Category 4 with 150 mph winds and 16 feet of storm surge.
Just three weeks later, and here we are again. This past weekend California experienced an even more intense heat wave, with the southern part of the state hitting 121 degrees west of the mountains for the first time in record-keeping history. Predictably, fires flared back up due to the severe heating and drying, and then went into overdrive as a wicked early-season cold front — which is also bringing heavy snow to the Rockies — brought a wind event through the mountains and valleys of the intermountain west.
In Washington state, an estimated 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday, more than the total in each of the last 12 fire seasons. California has seen a record 2.3 million acres burn so far this year — more than 3 times the normal for an entire season (typically July through November), and 7 times the normal year to date.
If it were just this fire season, one could chalk the extremity up to mere coincidence. But scientists say this is part of an ongoing upward trend, made clear by the data and well understood by science.
"There is little doubt that we're witnessing an acceleration of fire activity in the West - be it in terms of burned area, number of large fires, fire growth, and of course direct and indirect impacts to people," explains Dr. John Abatzoglou, climate professor at the University of California Merced.
The acceleration has been dramatic. Fire season is now two to three months longer than it was just a few decades ago across much of the West. Since the 1970s, California has experienced a five-fold increase in annual burned area and an eight-fold increase in summer forest fire extent. At least 17 of California's top 20 largest wildfires have burned since 2000.
Increase in California areas burned by wildfires, 1975 to 2015. WILLIAMS, ABATZOGLOU ET AL., EARTH'S FUTURE
Abatzoglou makes clear that there are many factors — not just climate change — that contribute to the escalation of fire activity. These include the increased settlement of people in fire-prone lands and a legacy of fire suppression in many lower-elevation forests, which led to years of heavy growth of trees and brush.
"We can focus on the bad fortune of the lightning siege around the San Francisco Bay Area, or the multitude of stupid human tricks that materialized in large wildfires, but the confluence of long-term and short-term environmental factors set the table for the 2020 fire season," he said.
In other words, though climate change does not cause the heat waves or fires, it sets the stage so that when conditions are ripe, like the summer and fall of 2020, heat waves are more intense and fires burn more fiercely.
This summer has been extremely hot and dry in the West. According to NOAA, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah each had their warmest August on record. Research has found that heat waves are now larger, getting more intense and lasting longer than decades ago. Specifically in California, extreme heat waves — like the ones of recent weeks — are now 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer due to climate change. By 2080, that same study finds such heat waves will intensify by another 3 to 5 degrees.
This week's NOAA report also finds that the same general area in the West also experienced one of its driest Augusts on record. This short-term dry and hot pattern is mainly due to natural cycles in weather, and from season to season has the biggest impact on the amount of area burned because it determines how dry the forests and brush are.
"Across the Western U.S. forests, we find that climatic measures of fuel dryness explain about ¾ of the year-to-year variability in the burned area — highlighting that climate very strongly enables big fire seasons in warm-dry summers and inhibits widespread fire activity in cool-wet summers," explains Abatzoglou.
But over the long term, human-caused climate change has been gradually drying out the atmosphere and the fuel. "The observed changes in fuel dryness [plus the] number of days of high fire danger have been particularly stark in the American West over the past half-century," says Abatzoglou.
Since the 1970s the warm season in the West has heated up by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This extra heat has increased the evaporation of moisture from the surface. While atmospheric moisture has also increased some, it has not increased nearly as fast as the temperature. That has caused a long-term "moisture deficit" and has accelerated the rate of foliage drying. This is part of the reason why, according to research, the West has entered into one of the worst megadroughts in the past 1,200 years.
A recent study, co-authored by Abatzoglou, found a direct link with nearly all of the increase in summer forest-fire area during the period from 1972–2018 driven by the increased moisture deficit. To illustrate just how impactful the moisture deficit is, right now, as unprecedented wildfires burn out of control, the deficit is at record low levels in the majority of the Western U.S.
Absurd atmospheric aridity (+ other factors) is enabling the ongoing fire outbreak – synchronized downslope winds… https://t.co/ohibdi2X5x— John Abatzoglou (@John Abatzoglou)1599605014.0
Another recent study from this spring found that the frequency of autumn days with extreme fire weather conditions has more than doubled since the 1980s, fueled by a combination of less rainfall and warmer temperatures.
But many scientists believe that there is more at play contributing to this extreme weather than simply the direct effects of warming and drying. One of those mechanisms is the indirect impacts of global warming on the most influential weather-maker on day-to-day conditions: the jet stream.
The speed and orientation of the jet stream — a river of fast-moving air currents in the atmosphere — determines the track, intensity and forward speed of most storm systems and also how cold or hot the weather is. The attributes of the jet stream at any given moment are determined largely by the placement of hot and cold air masses and the strength of the gradient between them. Because the Arctic has been warming at three times the rate of the rest of the globe, climate scientists know human-caused climate change is throwing the jet stream off-kilter. But how and to what extent is not totally understood.
A number of climate scientists believe that a warmer Arctic is slowing down the jet stream during certain times of year, resulting in a more wavy jet stream. As shown below, a wavy jet stream can catapult warm air northward into the Arctic and drive cold air far southward. This is exactly what happened during the catastrophic Midwest floods in 2019 and is also the kind of pattern we have right now, which is causing record low temperatures and extremely early season snow in the Rockies and Plains. A wavy jet stream is a normal part of nature, but climate change may be making it more amplified, resulting in more extremes.
"I think it's a triple whammy — heat and drought, which are favored by climate change, and the extra added ingredient is the slower, wavier jet stream," explains Mann. But he says the wavier jet stream isn't well resolved by current models, thus they underestimate the extremity of weather events enhanced by climate change.
As a result, when scientists dig into the causes of an extreme event, Mann says the studies underestimate the influence of human-caused climate change. "So if anything, climate attribution studies are likely to under-attribute the role that climate change is playing with these persistent extreme weather events," he said.
As for future fire seasons, Abatzoglou says we should expect extreme fires seasons like 2020's to become the rule rather than the exception.
"While the extent of the ongoing fire siege is beyond what most have seen in the West, the alignment of ingredients for such fire seasons is becoming more favorable as a result of climate change and land-use practices," he said. "We should expect, adapt, and prepare for similar years moving forward."
This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Rebecca Niemiec and Kevin Crooks
Colorado voters will decide on Nov. 3 whether the state should reintroduce gray wolves (Canis lupus) after a nearly 80-year absence. Ballot Proposition 114 would require the state to develop and oversee a science-based plan to restore wolves, focused in Western Colorado and initiated by the end of 2023.
Back by Popular Demand?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDUzOTQxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzI4NTkyMX0.BeRR61CH6a-TWwSw1p4kmng4x4tXRaSMKyTRHKIHmOw/img.jpg?width=980" id="1f7fe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="339e3443dc63f3be06e24a82f0b37a03" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9aec767b3325e364a8605524504f95ab"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/wTx_jqpqqfU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Clashing Values<p>Proposition 114 has strong support in Colorado. <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/public-perspectives-on-wolves-and-wolf-reintroduction-8-004/" target="_blank">Statewide surveys </a> conducted by phone, by mail and online over the past two decades have found that 66% to 84% of respondents supported reintroducing wolves. This support is consistent across different regions of the state and diverse demographic groups.</p><p>In a <a href="https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9074" target="_blank">survey of Colorado residents</a> that we conducted in 2019, the prospect that wolves could contribute to a balanced ecosystem was the most commonly cited reason for supporting reintroduction. Other arguments included people's cultural and emotional connections to wolves, and <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/moral-arguments-related-to-wolf-restoration-and-management-8-011/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">moral arguments</a> that restoring a species humans had eradicated was the right thing to do.</p><p>While overall public support is strong, over half of Colorado's 64 counties have passed <a href="https://www.drovers.com/article/wolf-reintroduction-ballot-colorado" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resolutions against restoring wolves</a>. Many ranching and hunting associations are actively campaigning against the ballot measure.</p><p>In our 2019 study, we found that media coverage in the state focused more strongly on <a href="https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.9074" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">perceived negative impacts</a> associated with wolf reintroduction than on beneficial effects. Surveys show that resident concerns include threats to <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-and-human-safety-8-003/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human safety and pets</a>; <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-and-livestock-8-010/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wolf attacks on livestock</a>; and the potential for wolves to <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/wolves-big-game-and-hunting-8-001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce deer and elk populations</a>, threatening hunting opportunities.</p>
Who Decides?<p>This measure is the first giving voters in the U.S. an opportunity to weigh in on bringing back a native species. Addressing the issue through a ballot measure adds a unique twist to public and media discussions about wolves.</p><p>Supporters call it a democratic way to ensure that the <a href="https://www.cpr.org/2020/09/29/should-wolves-be-brought-back-to-colorado-a-rancher-and-a-biologist-have-their-say/" target="_blank">public's values are recognized</a>. They also argue that voters are deciding only whether wolves should be reintroduced, while allowing experts at the <a href="https://cpw.state.co.us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state wildlife agency</a> to create a reintroduction plan <a href="https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/election/howl-you-vote-wolf-advocates-opponents-ask-colorado/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">based on the best available science</a>.</p>
<div id="4c11f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dec8674441e02372e50b796d848e4130"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1316474105315483649" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">According to a recent poll of 900 demographically representative likely voters, two-thirds supported “restoring wol… https://t.co/74LMG1PYtW</div> — High Country News (@High Country News)<a href="https://twitter.com/highcountrynews/statuses/1316474105315483649">1602706860.0</a></blockquote></div>
Finding Consensus<p>Studies suggest that ballot initiatives like 114 will <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.07.032" target="_blank">become more common</a> as public values toward wildlife change and more diverse groups seek to influence wildlife management. For us, the key question is how to recognize and incorporate these differing values as agencies make decisions.</p><p>Research drawing on insights from <a href="https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/people-predators/dialogue-and-social-conflict-about-wolves-8-009/" target="_blank">psychology, political science and sociology</a> suggests that it is critical to run<a href="https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QppmBszEF6zsNnhBJ7Q2-pSWRR-Zx_ln/view" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> truly participatory processes</a> that engage government agencies and people who have a stake in the issue in shared decision-making. Fostering dialogue between groups that value wildlife differently can build empathy and mutual understanding and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.07.015" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster compromise</a>. Broadening the conversation in this way is essential for coexisting with carnivores with minimal impacts on predators and people.</p>
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Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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