2020 was the largest wildfire season in California's modern history, according to state agency Cal Fire. And, as the climate crisis continues to increase fire risk, there are concerns that 2021 could be just as devastating.
To adapt to this new normal, California leaders Thursday announced a more-than half a billion dollar plan to prevent and prepare for wildfires.
"The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier. There's a new reality," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said as he announced the plan, as The Mercury News reported. "If you don't believe in climate change, if you don't believe in science, you believe your own damn eyes. Something is happening as it relates to the issue of climate that's exacerbating conditions and making the challenge of wildfire suppression and prevention that much more ominous."
CA isn't waiting until peak wildfire season to protect our communities. We proposed more than $1B for wildfire res… https://t.co/OBCLeb4DKN— Office of the Governor of California (@Office of the Governor of California)1617919919.0
The $536 million Wildfire Prevention and Resiliency package earmarks $350 million for forest management, including vegetation thinning, as well as $25 million to help homeowners pay for prevention measures on their properties, The Guardian reported. Newsom also touted the importance of adapting controlled burning techniques that were practiced for centuries by the state's first inhabitants. These smaller, necessary fires were suppressed by European settlers, contributing to the buildup of dried vegetation that has fueled historic blazes in recent years.
The new measure is an arrangement with California state lawmakers and has been introduced in both the House and Senate, according to The Mercury News. It is expected to pass Monday and be signed by Newsom next Tuesday. It builds on Newsom's pledge last week to hire around 1,400 new firefighters.
"For every dollar we spend on wildfire prevention, our state saves $6 to $7 in damage. But it's not just about saving money – this is about saving Californians' lives, their homes, and their livelihoods," Senate President Pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) said in a statement. "We've already had a wildfire break out in the San Gabriel mountains this month, and we're heading into a summer of hot, dry weather with another drought upon us."
Indeed, San Francisco is in the midst of its second driest two-year stretch in recorded history, according to The Mercury News. The state's rainy season this winter was the third driest on record and the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains was just 59 percent of its historic average as of April 1.
This leads experts to predict another devastating fire season. California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot warned reporters thursday that summer of 2021 promised "more of the same," as NBC News reported.
"The science is clear: Warming winter temperatures and warming summer temperatures are creating more dangerous and challenging wildfire conditions," he said. "Clearly much more needs to be done on a proactive, upfront basis to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire."
- How Goats Are Preventing Wildfires in California - EcoWatch ›
- Sonoma County Wildfire Spreads 7,000 Acres in Less Than Five ... ›
- Prison Inmates Fighting California's Deadly Fires - EcoWatch ›
The state's wildfire season got an early start thanks to an early snow melt, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. So far this year, more than 320 fires have scorched more than 1,500 acres, nearly reaching the total of 1,630.13 acres that were burned in all of 2020, according to the declaration.
"With nearly the entire state experiencing high or very high fire risk, protecting Wisconsinites from the destructive dangers of wildfires is a top priority," Evers said when announcing the order, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The emergency order gives the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which usually handles firefighting in the state, additional resources. It will now receive support from other state agencies, as well as the Wisconsin National Guard and their Black Hawk helicopters, the DNR noted in a press release.
The announcement comes three days after brush fire erupted in Menomonee Falls, forcing some people to evacuate their homes, WISN reported. The fires burned 400 acres of marshland, the largest single burn so far this year, but luckily all of the homes were spared. Only a deer stand burned down.
However, the dry and windy conditions that fueled those fires are expected to persist in the state, leading Evers to declare an emergency.
"[B]ased upon weather predictions from the National Weather Service, Wisconsin will experience a period of warmer temperatures, lower humidity, and high winds that can quickly ignite wildland and create rapidly spreading fires," the order read.
Dry leaves and grass are also fueling the flames, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The majority of counties are at high risk for fire, NBC News reported, and the DNR has suspended annual burning permits while asking people to avoid setting fires.
"To help us keep Wisconsinites safe, the DNR is asking you to avoid all outdoor burning including limiting the use of campfires and making sure to extinguish and dispose of cigarettes properly," the DNR said in its press release.
While wildfires can occur in Wisconsin any time of the year, the primary season runs from March until May, The New York Times reported. The state's wildfire risk may also be increasing because of the climate crisis. The group Climate Power 2020 told the Wisconsin Examiner that wildfires were becoming more common. While high humidity usually lessens fire risk, Wisconsin experienced two climate-related droughts between 2009 and 2016 that cost $45.9 billion in damages, and future droughts could increase fire danger.
Nationwide, the climate crisis is certainly driving fire risk; 2020 alone brought a devastating wildfire season to the Western U.S., NBC noted. However, this spring wildfires have taken off in the Upper Plains, Rockies, Great Lakes and Southwest.
"Fire season can be at any time," Bureau of Land Management Spokesperson Carrie Bilbao told NBC News. "We just don't really have those wet seasons consistently anymore."
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Wildfires burned across the Midwest and Great Plains over the weekend as dry, windy conditions induced 'Red Flag' warnings across the Central Continental U.S.
The entire western portion of North Dakota faces either 'severe' or 'extreme drought' and the entire state is under a statewide fire emergency. On Saturday, shifting winds there destroyed a fire truck near Willison, about 100 miles north of Medora, which was forced to evacuate due to a separate fire last week.
"We're just getting started into a tough fire season," North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum warned Friday. Climate change makes wildfires worse by heating air temperatures and worsening droughts. Firefighters also battled a wildfire in Menomonee Falls, northwest of Milwaukee on Friday. A wildfire also forced evacuations of two towns near Topeka, Kansas, and another burned more than 300 acres at Indiana Dunes National Park.
For a deeper dive:
Three wildfires raging in South Dakota have shuttered Mount Rushmore and forced hundreds to flee their homes.
The largest blaze is the Schroeder Fire, first reported at 9:22 a.m. Monday one mile west of Rapid City, according to a Facebook update. It has since spread to 1,900 acres and forced up to 500 people to flee their homes, the Rapid City Journal reported Monday evening. Authorities attributed the fire to human causes, but its spread to environmental factors.
"We are at record-dry conditions along with high winds playing a major factor in this fight," South Dakota Wildland Fire Division Director Jay Esperance said in the Facebook update.
Today's Schroeder Fire Pictures https://t.co/I4eMcpp8MU— penncofire (@penncofire)1617080041.0
As of the most recent update, there were 250 firefighters battling the flames. The fire has destroyed at least one home and two pole barns, the Pennington County Sheriff's Office confirmed on Facebook. No injuries have been reported, The Associated Press said.
Meanwhile, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was forced to close because of two other fires, the Keystone Fire and 244 Fire, CNN reported. The 244 fire is located 1.5 miles southwest of Keystone. It spread to around 75 acres as of Monday afternoon, according to the interagency website Great Plains Fire Information. The Keystone Fire has successfully been reduced from 30 to 15 acres as of 7 p.m. Monday, the website said.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said that the fires were not directly threatening Mount Rushmore, The New York Times reported. However, strong winds made the situation unstable.
"I do want to remind everybody that this is an incredibly fluid situation," CNN quoted Noem at a press conference. "That these winds are a major factor and that as they shift and change and we get those gusts, that's when the can jump and we're going to have to stay pretty mobile."
Parts of South Dakota are under a red flag warning for ideal fire conditions until 8 p.m. Tuesday, The New York Times reported. However, wind speeds are predicted to decrease on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Rapid City Journal reported.
"Humidity is going to be low so... we're going to stay dry, but the winds will be diminishing gradually so that's definitely good news," Matthew Bunkers, a National Weather Service Rapid City meteorologist, told the Rapid City Journal.
Wildfires are expected to become more frequent in South Dakota's Black Hills due to the climate crisis as temperatures rise and humidity declines, according to a study published in Ecology Evolution. South Dakota State Fire Meteorologist Darren Clabo told KOTA TV that this would have a profound impact on the state's landscape.
"I think the long-term effects of all these fires are there's going to be some places that have fundamental ecological shifts," Clabo said. "Which basically means that the ecosystems that are there currently aren't going to exist in those areas anymore, our climates shifted too far away from where those ecosystems can naturally exist and so I think we are going to start seeing some very large broad landscape-level changes out there."
A megadrought worsened by climate change is creating and exacerbating problems across the Western U.S. as NOAA predicts precipitation levels below historical norms through June.
NOAA's official spring outlook, released late last week, predicts expanding and worsening drought from Louisiana to Oregon and unusually warm temperatures in almost the entire country — which in turn make drought worse. "We are predicting prolonged and widespread drought," National Weather Service Deputy Director Mary Erickson told the AP. "It's definitely something we're watching and very concerned about."
Shrinking snowpack means even less water will be available for everything from drinking water to hydropower to irrigation, and reservoirs such as Lakes Mead and Powell are already at below-normal levels. Climate change exacerbates drought in multiple ways, including by creating weather patterns that, "leav[e] the southwestern states mostly warm, dry, and prone to wildfires,'' Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, told Bloomberg.
As reported by CNN:
The greatest area of snow drought expansion has been in the Sierra Nevada where no large storms have occurred since the strong atmospheric river in late January. This has left almost all of the Sierra Nevada weather stations below the 30th percentile of snow water equivalent, and a few locations in the Southern Sierra are even below the 10th percentile.
But what is bad for some can be good for others in terms of snowpack. It's the ultimate dichotomy.
That's because unlike in some previous years, that lack of snowmelt means flooding will be less severe across the Plains and Midwest, but it also means lack of necessary water for the western states that rely on it to keep drought conditions in check.
For a deeper dive:
- 12 New Books Explore Fresh Approaches to Act on Climate Change ... ›
- NOAA Updates Extreme Weather Forecasting Model ›
By Jessica Corbett
The world's largest humanitarian network warned Wednesday that urgent international action is needed to address the rising risk of climate-related displacement, highlighting data that shows disasters such as storms, droughts, fires, and floods internally displaced more than 10 million people from September to February.
"In just the last six months, there have been 12.6 million people internally displaced around the world and over 80% of these forced displacements have been caused by disasters, most of which are triggered by climate and weather extremes," said Helen Brunt of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
"Asia suffers much more than any other region from climate disaster-related displacements," noted Brunt, IFRC's Asia Pacific Migration and Displacement coordinator. "These upheavals are taking a terrible toll on some of the poorest communities already reeling from the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic."
The new report, Responding to Disasters and Displacement in a Changing Climate, draws data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. According to the IDMC, about 2.3 million displacements over the past six months are related to conflict compared with 10.3 million due to disasters.
MEDIA RELEASE: New report reveals 12.6 million people have been internally displaced around the world in the last s… https://t.co/4Y5c8OiwTq— IFRC Asia Pacific (@IFRC Asia Pacific)1615970193.0
The report details how the IFRC has responded to various humanitarian needs across Asia, with case studies about assisting communities affected by drought in Afghanistan; seasonal cyclones and monsoon rains, which lead to flooding and landslides, in Bangladesh; and a dzud, a term for extreme winter conditions that cause mass livestock loss, in Mongolia.
The network also dedicates a section to the Philippine Red Cross's efforts to adopt a strategic approach to housing, land, and property rights for displaced communities.
"We are seeing an alarming trend of people displaced by more extreme weather events such as Typhoon Goni, the world's most ferocious storm last year, that smashed into the Philippines," said Brunt. "Three storms hit the Philippines in as many weeks, leaving over three million people destitute."
More broadly, she added, "We need greater action and urgent investment to reduce internal displacement caused by the rising risk of disasters. Investing much more in local organizations and first responders is critical so they have the resources needed to protect lives, homes, and their communities."
The report includes eight overall recommendations:
- Investment in and focus on local actors and local responders;
- Meaningful community engagement and accountability;
- A protection, gender and inclusion (PGI)-informed approach and response;
- Strengthening national and branch level internal systems and capabilities;
- Monitoring population movements in the context of both slow and sudden onset disasters;
- Community-led assessments;
- Coordinating and promoting the centrality of durable solutions to displacement; and
- Humanitarian diplomacy, and multi-stakeholder partnerships and coordination.
"Things are getting worse as climate change aggravates existing factors like poverty, conflict, and political instability," Brunt told Reuters. "The compounded impact makes recovery longer and more difficult: people barely have time to recover and they're slammed with another disaster."
While the IFRC's report focuses on internal displacement — meaning individuals who remain within their home countries — recent climate-related disasters have also generated calls for just and updated policies related to refugees.
Last month, a report from Kayly Ober, senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International, provided the Biden administration with a policy roadmap, declaring that "the United States has a moral and practical responsibility to lead on issues of climate change, migration, and displacement."
"Yes, we should invest in climate change adaptation and resilience measures, because it enables people to stay in place if they would like to," Ober told Common Dreams. "But we also need to understand that people are already on the move and will continue to be on the move, especially as climate change impacts increase in intensity and frequency."
An analysis released last year by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics & Peace found that as the global population climbs toward 10 billion by 2050, ecological disasters and armed conflict could forcibly displace about 10% of humanity.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
- One Billion People May Become Climate Refugees By 2050 ... ›
- Move of Rohingya Refugees Poses Environmental and Human ... ›
Six months of summer may sound like a school child's fantasy, but it could be a very real, and very serious, impact of the climate crisis.
A study published in Geophysical Research Letters last month found that summer in the Northern Hemisphere could last nearly six months by 2100 if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And this could spell "increased risks to humanity," the study authors warned.
"A hotter and longer summer will suffer more frequent and intensified high-temperature events – heatwaves and wildfires," Congwen Zhu of the State Key Laboratory of Severe Weather and Institute of Climate System at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, who was not involved with the study, said in an American Geophysical Union (AGU) press release.
The research was based on the observation that summers are already getting longer in the Northern Hemisphere.
"More often, I read some unseasonable weather reports, for example, false spring, or May snow, and the like," study lead author Yuping Guan, an oceanographer at the State Key Laboratory of Tropical Oceanography, South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told AGU.
So Guan's team looked at climate data from 1952 to 2011 in the Northern Hemisphere. They defined summer as when temperatures began to be 25 percent hotter than during the rest of the year, and winter as when temperatures were in the coldest 25 percent of the year. What they discovered is that seasons are already shifting:
The new study found that, on average, summer grew from 78 to 95 days between 1952 to 2011, while winter shrank from 76 to 73 days. Spring and autumn also contracted from 124 to 115 days, and 87 to 82 days, respectively. Accordingly, spring and summer began earlier, while autumn and winter started later. The Mediterranean region and the Tibetan Plateau experienced the greatest changes to their seasonal cycles.
"Summers are getting longer and hotter while winters shorter and warmer due to global warming," Guan summarized.
The researchers then used climate models to predict how the length of seasons would change in the future based on how swiftly we act to reduce emissions. They found that, in a business-as-usual scenario, summers would extend nearly six months while winters would last fewer than two.
This would have serious implications for a wide range of human and animal activities, such as bird migration and agriculture, LiveScience explained. Another consequence could be the spread of deadly diseases.
"Tropical mosquitoes carrying viruses are likely to expand northward and bring about explosive outbreaks during longer and hotter summers," the study authors wrote, as LiveScience reported.
- 12 New Books Explore Fresh Approaches to Act on Climate Change ... ›
- Where Do We Go From Here? - EcoWatch ›
- Naomi Klein: 'We Are Seeing the Beginnings of the Era of Climate ... ›
The research, published in Nature Communications on Friday, found that wildfire smoke could be up to 10 times more harmful than other sources of air pollution, such as from vehicles or industry.
"We know wildfires are going to become more extreme, due to climate change," Rosana Aguilera, study co-author and postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told The Guardian. "And it's important that we start to reckon with the health effects of that."
The researchers examined hospital admission records in California between 1999 and 2012. They found that admissions for respiratory problems increased from around 1.3 percent to 10 percent following an uptick in wildfire-specific air pollution. The same amount of air pollution from other sources led to a smaller admissions increase, topping out around 1.3 percent.
This isn't the first study to suggest that wildfire smoke might be more harmful than other forms of air pollution, the authors noted. Animal studies have suggested the same thing.
Mary Prunicki, a Stanford air pollution researcher who was not part of the study, told The Guardian that evidence also suggested that wildfire smoke could exacerbate heart conditions and respiratory ailments.
She explained that since wildfires engulf homes and businesses, they emit fumes that contain metals, plastic and cleaning supplies. Large fires also suck smoke high into the atmosphere, where it lasts longer and combines with oxygen to become more dangerous.
"We're pretty aware of the physical costs of wildfire, in terms of firefighting costs and damage to property," Tom Corringham, a study co-author also at Scripps, told NPR. "But there's been a lot of work that has shown that the health impacts due to wildfire smoke are on the same order of magnitude, or possibly even greater, than the direct physical cost."
The study comes as this problem is only getting worse. While particulate matter air pollution has been decreasing across most of the U.S. thanks to stricter environmental regulations, that has not been the case in wildfire-prone areas, the study found. Wildfires will likely increase as long as the climate crisis persists. In 2020, California experienced six of its largest fires on record, the Los Angeles Times reported. Those fires choked the Western U.S. with smoke, in some places for weeks. An NPR analysis found that one in seven West Coast residents experienced at least one day of unhealthy air quality last year.
Unfortunately, wildfire smoke is not as easy to regulate as tailpipe or power-plant emissions. Corringham called for providing low-income households with money for air purifiers. But he also suggested a longer-term solution.
"Anything we can do today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the global climate system will have significant benefits," he told NPR.
- What's in Wildfire Smoke, and How Bad Is It for Your Lungs ... ›
- What Wildfire Smoke Plumes Reveal About Air Quality Over Time ... ›
- 2020 Sets New U.S. Wildfire Record - EcoWatch ›
- South Dakota Wildfires Close Mount Rushmore and Force Evacuations ›
- Wisconsin Declares State of Emergency Due to High Wildfire Risk ›
As the planet warms, mountain snowpack is increasingly melting. But "global warming isn't affecting everywhere the same," Climate Scientist Amato Evan told the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.
In a recent study, a team of researchers examined if snowpack melted faster in the Western U.S. than in other areas. Their findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Snowpack disappearance is occurring most rapidly in coastal regions and the south, according to scientists. This means that the Sierra Nevadas, Cascades and Southern Arizona mountains are at most risk for melting compared to the Rockies or Utah mountains.
"As you get closer to the ocean or further south in the U.S., the snowpack is more vulnerable, or more at-risk, due to increasing temperature, whereas in the interior of the continent, the snowpack seems much more impervious, or resilient to rising temperatures," Evan, the study's lead author, told Scripps Oceanography.
Funded by NOAA's Climate Program Office, the study analyzed regional variations in snowpack melt with temperature increases. Using four decades of observations, the scientists created a new model to understand the "discrepancy in the timing of snowpack disappearance," according to Scripps Oceanography.
They found shorter winters and early springs changed the amount of time snow had to accumulate and cover the ground. "Our theory tells us why that's happening, and it's basically showing that spring is coming a lot earlier in the year if you're in Oregon, California, Washington, and down south, but not if you're in Colorado or Utah," Evan told Scripps Oceanography.
For example, California's snowpack is not only melting faster but also accumulating less, threatening the state's water supply — one-third of which comes from the Sierras, NBC Bay Area reported. Rapid melting could also have "adverse societal effects because it contributes to a longer fire season," Scripps Oceanography wrote.
During a typical summer, gradual snowpack runoff keeps soil and plants moist. Yet in early spring 2020, the West experienced a warm and dry climate, The Washington Post reported.
"The magnitude we're seeing right now is pretty startling," Bryan Henry, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, told The Washington Post last spring. By September, wildfires had burned more than five million acres in California, Oregon and Washington, The New York Times reported.
Understanding the threats limited snowpack had on regions, researchers were also able to use their models to make global projections. Coastal regions, the Arctic, Central Europe and South America will experience rapid snowpack melts sooner than the northern interiors of North America and Eurasia, the scientists wrote.
While their findings offer a dire warning, they could also help climate leaders focus on areas where action is most needed.
"I was excited by the simplicity of the explanation that we ultimately arrived at," Climate Scientist Ian Eisenman told Scripps Oceanography. "Our theoretical model provides a mechanism to explain why the observed snowmelt dates change so much more at some locations than at others, and it also predicts how snowmelt dates will change in the future under further warming."
- California's Dwindling Snowpack: Another Year of Drought, Floods ... ›
- California's Dire Drought Leads to Record Low Snowpack Levels at ... ›
- Climate Change Is Shrinking Winter Snowpack and Harming ... ›
By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Social vulnerability researchers seek to understand the impediments and capacities of people and communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from extreme natural hazards. A major tool in this work is social vulnerability modeling, the use of which is expanding in large part because of growing awareness of the social equity implications of disasters.
This modeling applies knowledge garnered from disaster case studies describing how chronic marginalization translates to disproportionate adverse outcomes to identify the most vulnerable population groups. Such populations often include those living in poverty, the very old and young, minoritized ethnic and racial groups, renters, and recent immigrants [National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019]. Social vulnerability modelers select demographic variables representing these groups and combine them to construct spatial indicators and indexes that enable comparisons of social vulnerability across places.
Mapping Social Vulnerability
Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of Cutter et al. . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.
Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., de Loyola Hummell et al., 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also developed a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.
The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [Wood et al., 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [Myers et al., 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [Tate, 2012].
More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [Chakraborty et al., 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [Rufat et al., 2015].
Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.
In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).
Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [Tate et al., 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.
The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [Emrich et al., 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Individual Assistance program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Disaster Recovery program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity
Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.
Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who participate in flood buyout programs, are eligible for postdisaster loans, receive short-term recovery assistance [Drakes et al., 2021], and have access to mental health services. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [Elliott et al., 2020].
Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.
At the national level, FEMA has developed options to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [Harris County Flood Control District, 2019].
Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the 2008 flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.
Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis
Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.
Selecting the relevant modes of equity for analysis is crucial. Is the primary interest to quantify disparities in the distribution of hazard impacts or procedural disparities in accessing resources? Is the focus on individual populations or on combinations of population characteristics? As social inequities often accrue to low-income households, analysts should consider assessing economic losses in both absolute and proportional terms.
Creating valid measures of equity requires not only statistical expertise but also a fundamental understanding of the underlying processes of social marginalization. This facilitates selection of optimal proxy indicators and their geographic scales. However, practical considerations like data availability and cost can lead to indicator selection that diverges from conceptual bases. For example, for disaster assistance received by households, an equity analysis should ideally be conducted at the household scale. Unfortunately, data describing some dimensions of inequity, like race, are rarely collected by disaster agencies, necessitating analysis using census data at larger geographic scales.
The final major challenge is to develop statistically robust measures and best practices for assessing disaster equity that strengthen the foundation for policy interventions. Doing so may require expanding current approaches to include sensitivity analyses to assess how choices of parameters (e.g., input variables, geographic scale) in building social vulnerability indicators affect the statistical stability of resulting measures, and how these measures correlate with observed disaster impacts like dislocation, assistance eligibility, and recovery time.
The stakes for improving our understanding of relationships among hazards, vulnerability, and social equity are high, as climate disasters from flooding, drought, tropical cyclones, and wildfire have been increasing in their frequency and destruction. By definition, sustainable solutions that empower communities to resist, recover from, and adapt to these threats must be not only economically viable and environmentally sound but also socially equitable. Well-designed measures of disaster equity are an important tool for quantifying disaster disparities, which is the first step toward dismantling them.
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
The Wooroloo fire, raging out of control outside Perth, Western Australia, has destroyed at least 71 homes and was expected to continue to grow.
Authorities warn the fire, already fueled by hot and unusually dry conditions, is being made dangerously erratic by winds gusting at over 45 mph and blowing embers as much as three miles ahead of the firefront.
Smoke from the blaze turned skies over the city on Australia's western coast a hazy orange, raining ash on suburban homes, and dangerously degraded air quality. Climate change makes wildfires more extreme as increased temperatures dry out brush and soil, exacerbating fire conditions. Officials emphasized that evacuation orders caused by the fire overrode the snap lockdown triggered by a COVID-19 infection earlier in the week.
As reported by The New York Times:
The fire, reminiscent of the infernos that devoured Australia's southeast coast more than a year ago, is another reminder that as climate change spurs more frequent and intense natural disasters, Australia and other countries are likely to find themselves dealing with intersecting catastrophes.
For a deeper dive:
- After 'Devastating' Wildfire Season, All Fires in Australia's New South ... ›
- Australia Wildfire Forces 4,000 to Flee to Sea - EcoWatch ›
Exceptionally heavy rain caused debris flows and flash flooding that damaged as many as two dozen homes and buildings in California's Salinas Valley on Wednesday.
In Paso Robles, unhoused people living in the Salinas Riverbed are especially in danger and local officials were working to alert them to the potential 20-25-foot rise in water levels. The heavy rains produced by an atmospheric river also caused flooding and knocked out power for thousands in the Bay Area and the threat of landslides and debris flows remains across the state after the state's record-smashing 2020 wildfire season.
The landslides are an example of the compound disasters made more frequent as human caused climate change makes wildfires more extreme and extreme precipitation more frequent.
As reported by KPIX:
The heavy rain triggered a mudslide in the River Road area near the Salinas River and Highway 101 south of Salinas. KSBW reported an estimated 50 large animals that were stuck in mud that had to be rescued.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Monterey County confirmed Wednesday afternoon that it had taken in 41 animals for shelter due to people having to evacuate the area.
As of Wednesday afternoon, SPCA Monterey County had taken in nine dogs, 14 cats, 17 horses and a donkey for residents who did not have anywhere else to take the animals.
Anyone in the county who needs assistance with sheltering animals is asked to call the organization at (831) 373-2631 during day hours and (831) 264-5424 at night.
River Road has been closed by the California Highway Patrol from Chualar River Road north to Parker Canyon Road due to flooding and mud.
MCRFD working with local property owners on damage assessment In the River Rd area. Thank you to all the local ranc… https://t.co/7PgkagcJsV— Mont. Co. Regional Fire (@Mont. Co. Regional Fire)1611772018.0
The weather service said its tracking has the Big Sur coastline as the 'bullseye' for the storm front that has been intensified by the moisture from an atmospheric river.
"Our local in-house model is showing extensive storm totals in the Big Sur hills in excess of 20 inches with a bullseye amount in excess of 31 inches," the weather service said.
For a deeper dive:
Mudslides: King City Rustler, SFGate, Weather Channel, KION, ABC, KPIX, KSBW, Los Angeles Times, AP, Unhoused people: KSBY; Outages: San Francisco Chronicle, Atmospheric river: The Washington Post, AP; Climate Signals background: 2020 Western wildfire season, Extreme precipitation, Runoff and flood risk