The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Come On, Baby, Light My….

Obviously, the Wine Country fires are yet another of the many signs of the coming climate Apocalypse, right?

Well, maybe.

I’ll spare you all the suspense and say yes,wildfires probably are increasing due to climate change, but the picture is a little more complicated than it might appear. Let’s explore some of these extra details a bit, shall we?

First of all, a fire season can be “bad” in many different ways, just as a hurricane season can be, and in order to even assess whether fire seasons are getting worse, we need to first decide what kind of “bad” we’re even looking at. For example, a fire season can be bad because:

  • There are a lot of fires
  • A lot of acreage burns
  • The fire season is very long
  • The fires are unusually hot, thus causing more damage per acre burnt
  • Fire behavior is less predictable than normal, making the fire harder and more dangerous to fight
  • More places humans care about burn
  • Fighting fires costs more than usual
  • An unusual number of people die in fires

Obviously, several items on the menu can occur at the same time–a year might see a lot of very large, hot fires that behave unpredictably, kill lots of people, destroy lots of property, and cost a lot of money during a time of year when fire danger is normally low. But it’s also possible to see a huge number of very small fires, a small number of very large fires, or a season that seems bad only because beloved places burn, while fire behavior is otherwise fairly mild.

Also, some of the variables in play are clearly linked to climate, such as the length of the fire season. But other forms of “bad” are partly or wholly caused by other factors, such as where suburban development is occurring, how forests are being managed, and how wildfires are being fought.

As with hurricanes, the challenge is to tease out a consistent, relatively uncluttered dataset so you can compare apples to apples from year to year–for enough years for statistical relevance. Unfortunately, most of the articles don’t address where their information is coming from, even when the site is quite reputable, so it’s hard for a non-expert like me to judge how much we really know and how much is logically sound conjecture.

Wildfire Is Getting Worse Because of Climate Change

A simple online search brings up lots of articles on how climate change is definitely making wildfires worse (meaning “longer and more intense”). There are several mechanisms involved. Most directly, higher average temperatures drive more evaporation, and earlier snowmelt, meaning that fuels are drier for a greater part of the year even if precipitation remains the same. Indeed, fire seasons are usually two months longer now than they were a few decades ago. Longer fire seasons mean more fires and also a greater drain on national firefighting resources.

A hotter climate also increases the chance that firefighters may have to work in dangerously hot weather. Hot weather at night can be especially damaging, because heat injury is cumulative. If the body can’t rest from the heat, then heat stroke becomes more likely.

Changes in precipitation patterns, another aspect of climate change, are also important, and not only because some areas are increasingly vulnerable to drought. Climate change involves a concentration of precipitation, so that a greater proportion of the rain that does fall comes in intense cloudbursts, with longer gaps in between. Even if average precipitation holds steady or goes up, this “never rains but it pours” situation is bad news. The rainstorms trigger lush plant growth, which then dries out in the long periods between rains, increasing fuel loads.

The number of acres burned per year has gone up over the past forty years, although the year-to-year variation is very large as well and tends to complicate the picture.

And of course, changes in land-use patterns play their own roles, since there are more houses being built in wooded areas than there used to be, and those houses burn if the woods do.

Wildfire Might Not Be Getting Worse

I’ve also found a few articles arguing that wildfires aren’t getting worse at all. One article argued that America’s forests are getting too dense because there aren’t enough fires and that Congress should provide immediate relief by encouraging logging. Unfortunately, I have not been able to re-find that article, so I can’t verify either its methods or its politics. The other simply points to the lack of trend and leaves it at that.

In some ways, it’s a pretty solid piece–it even links back to several original research papers, and the website, which belongs to a group of public radio stations has no obvious political agenda. A close reading of the article, and its sources, resolves the apparent contradiction.

The author, Tom Banse, acknowledges that fire seasons have been trending worse in recent decades, as other authors describe, yet he frames his own article as providing “contrast” by discussing three scientific papers that “question that prevailing wisdom” by looking at longer time scales.

Time scale is important. It’s possible to create trends out of nothing, or erase trends that actually exist, simply by looking at data from either a too-short interval or a too-long interval. Reading Mr. Banse’s article, it looks as though such obfuscation may be occurring with respect to wildfire, at least in the Western United States. Reading the papers he cites….

The link to one of those three papers is broken. The other two do say the things that Mr. Banse says they say, but not in any way that contrasts with the narrative of climate-induced fire severity.

One paper (actually a report by the United States Forest Service) concludes that, at least in some parts of California, fires were more frequent before the European-American conquest than they have been in modern times, defined as since 1908. In other words, it does not comment at all on changes in fire frequency over the past forty years–the study did not look at trends at all, at any time scale. Instead, the study’s methods involved dividing the study area up into ecologically defined sub-units and comparing the fire frequency for each unit before conquest to the fire frequency after 1908. Thus, all the fires in all the years since 1908 are subsumed into a single number.

There is nothing wrong with that method, but it was designed to address a very different question than the one Mr. Banse is using it to address. It’s a non-sequitur that happens to include the requisite words that wildfires used to be more frequent.

The other paper demonstrates that prior to conquest, fires were often more intense than conventional wisdom among conservationists maintain. Note that the authors of this paper aren’t talking about modern fire behavior at all. They are comparing their understanding of pre-conquest fire severity with somebody else’s understanding of pre-conquest fire severity.

Mr. Banse does quote one of the paper’s authors as saying that fire severity is less now than what “early settlers were dealing with,” but it’s unclear where this quote comes from–it does not come from the paper, since the language of the quote is not formal. Without the original context, we can’t tell what Dr. DellaSala was really talking about in his quoted remarks, or what information he was basing his remarks on. He does not seem to be arguing against the idea that climate change is causing larger, hotter, or more frequent wildfires, only that, from a strictly ecological perspective, more fire isn’t the disaster people seem to think it is.

A very interesting point–but relative to Mr. Banse, it’s another convenient non-sequitur.

Does Tom Banse have a climate-denier agenda? Maybe. The article is certainly structured as a counterpoint against the use of wildfire as evidence of the reality of climate change. I suspect that in the three years since its publication, it has been linked to by climate deniers more often than by the climate sane. But without more information, I cannot judge Mr. Banse. It’s possible he just felt that a counterpoint to prevailing wisdom seemed more interesting.

What’s Going on with Wildfire?

The actual fire we see is a result of a combination of climate, land management (including fire management), and other factors. The research Mr. Banse references hints at that complexity, though probably not in the way he intended.

While the quoted researchers seem to treat the conditions found by settlers as natural, it is likely that the lands in question were being managed intensively with fire prior to conquest–fire was a common management tool in many areas of North America, though I don’t know the details for the areas in those studies (if we don’t normally think of Native Americans as having their own land management practices, it’s because we’re racist; the idea that any part of the American was untouched by humans prior to white people showing up implicitly assumes that Native Americans aren’t human). After conquest, management with fire stopped, and was, within several decades, replaced by active fire suppression (when I was doing fuels reduction cutting in Arizona, I was told that grazing by cattle dramatically reduced fire frequency well before fire suppression began–close-cropped grass did not carry flame well). Of course there were fewer fires–that was the idea.

Decades of fire suppression increased fuel loads dramatically, thus increasing fire risk. Land managers have in more recent decades responded by conducting controlled burns and by allowing some fires that do not threaten developed areas or infrastructure to burn freely. Between one thing and another, fire frequency and severity have increased again, and would have increased anyway whether climate change intervened or not.

It’s not that I don’t believe climate change is a factor–in fact, I don’t see how climate change could avoid being a factor, given that it directly affects both fuel load and fuel moisture content, as well as making firefighting more dangerous due to the risk of heat stroke, as mentioned. But neither the fact that more acreage is burning, nor the fact that this year’s fires are particularly bad is itself the proverbial smoking gun.

What I’d like to see–and I’m sure this exists, I just haven’t seen it this week–is an article, written for a general readership, that presents the changes in fire behavior that result from climate change as separate from those that result from changes in land management and fire management practices. And I mean observed changes, not simply a discussion of what climate change ought to be doing based on our general knowledge of it.

That Mr. Banse may have had an agenda doesn’t make him wrong; that he is wrong makes him wrong. Most people have an agenda of one kind or another, and even those who profess to being utterly objective generally reflect somebody’s viewpoint or priority system (for example, who is paying for their objective scientific research and why?). The point isn’t to avoid those who have agendas, the point is to avoid lies, misleading statements, and agendas that are irrational, dysfunctional, or immoral in some way. Mr. Banse was honest enough to give us the tools to evaluate his talking points–he included links to peer-reviewed scholarship. That’s why we can say that his article was close to meaningless. I find myself wishing that more writers whose agendas I might like better were equally helpful and honest, if only so I could be certain they are right.

So, to summarize: wildfires are burning more acres per year, on average, than they did when I was born, and fire seasons are longer. Fires are also more dangerous to fight because of the increased likelihood of heat waves. Climate change is part of this picture, because it gives us longer summers and longer dry periods between wet periods. But other factors are also changing fire behavior, and at the moment one of the areas that happens to be on fire is beautiful and famous and populated, so we really care about it.

And at 11:31 PM of the day I’m supposed to post this, I can’t tell you what the relationships among all those factors is, or whether anyone knows.


(Note; actually, someone might know, and that someone might be me; I’ve written about fire in this blog before, but since I’ve been chasing information online today without much success, I haven’t had the time to reread my own work and hunt down my earlier sources. The result is this article that comments on the need for better science communication as much as on climate change itself)


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Just the Facts

I just returned from leading a bus tour through Assateague Island, a barrier island near where I live. It’s far from the first time I’ve given a natural history talk, but I hadn’t done it in awhile, and never before on a tour bus. The difference is that on a bus, the content of my talk has to be synchronized to the changing view outside the bus window. Also, I needed about four hours of content, instead of the twenty minutes to an hour that I’m used to.  I’m tired, but I had fun.

To prepare for the job, I tagged along with another guide (my husband) on a couple of bus tours, and I was struck by how often climate change came up. Of course, Assateague is the perfect place to talk about climate change. As a low-lying island, the place is vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather, and the plants are vulnerable to changes in insect survival through the winter. Almost any story or explanation on the island can plausibly include the phrase”because of climate change.” And yet, we live in a day and age when climate change is regularly ignored in public, even when it is entirely obvious. When the subject is raised, it is often done in a strident and political way, for obvious reasons–producing an unfortunate feedback loop, where the climate-denier activities of one political bloc forces climate sanity to align itself with the other political bloc, forcing climate discussions further out of politically neutral spaces, such as bus tours. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is another way.

It is possible to talk about climate change in a matter-of-fact, apolitical way. The reason why that piece of coastline looks like that is climate change. Boom. Simple. On the bus today, I said “if anybody ever said ‘where’s climate change,’ you can say you’ve seen it.” And a busfull of strangers accepted that.

Just a simple fact of the world we live in.


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Ordinary Threats

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. Thus also begins a post I wrote a year ago, in honor of the date and of then-current events. I’m reworking that post now. After all, Mr. Trump has been elected President, is giving all the signals up-and-coming fascist dictators do, has initiated the American pull-out of the Paris Agreement, largely dismantled the EPA, is quietly letting American citizens in Puerto Rico die while he dog-whistles racists over football, and may well start a nuclear war with North Korea any day now (if North Korea doesn’t start one with us, first).

Our very existence indeed seems under deadly threat.

As the subject of my post, I took, not the movie, Little Shop of Horrors, but the play it was based on. The critical difference between the two is that the latter does not have a happy ending. The carnivorous plant wins. It is a much darker–and more interesting–story.

In brief, the story is as follows:

A flower shop on Skid Row (a strange idea in itself) is about to go out of business, when the shop assistant, Seymour, puts a strange plant in the window, to draw in customers. And it works! Inexplicably, customers start pouring in! But then the plant wilts, and the owner orders Seymour to fix the plant Or Else. Seymour discovers that the plant perks up only when fed human blood. Of course, he pays up–his coworkers are the closest thing Seymour has to a family and the store is his only means of livelihood. The plant grows, business flourishes, and Seymour must give more and more blood. The plant gains the power of speech and tells Seymour to deliver an entire human. The man refuses. The plant temps him with money, respect, access to beautiful women. The man wavers. The plant points out that the woman Seymour loves is dating an abusive jackass who deserves to die. Sold.

Seymour gets the girl (who had always loved him, it turns out), money, fame, the whole nine yards, but then the owner of the shop discovers the murder and blackmails Seymour. Soon, the boss, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything, but the guilt is eating him and he tries to rebel. The plant attacks Seymour’s beloved, who then dies, asking Seymour to feed her to the plant because then at least they can be together. He complies, but then flies into a rage, tries to kill the plant, fails, climbs into its mouth intending to kill it from the inside, and dies. Shortly thereafter, a businessman arrives to take cuttings, intending to propagate the plant worldwide.

When I was a kid, I saw the plant as no more evil than a mosquito (a potentially lethal blood sucker). I see the story now as a morality play and a true and disturbing tragedy.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings–which are inextricably related to the very things that make him great. The scary thing is that Seymour is great only in that he is ordinary. He’s normal. A bit geeky and skittish, but basically one of us. It’s hard not to like him. And who among us would not behave as he does? A little blood to save our livelihood? Sure. From there, Seymour gradually crosses one red line after another, taking the least bad option at each turn while the options steadily get worse and the stakes grow ever higher–at what point can any of us honestly say we would have done anything differently?

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Although there’s no evidence the people who wrote Little Shop of Horrors intended to create anything other than a goofy spoof of a grade B horror movie, it works very well as a metaphor for exactly the process that is threatening the world. After all, how could the fossil fuel industry create climate change, if not with our money? And yet we keep feeding them, sometimes in order to obtain luxury and power, but more often because how else are we supposed to get to work?
This week’s nuclear threat is a somewhat different animal. It is less obvious that we, the people, are directly complicit, for one thing, and it’s far from certain that a nuclear exchange in this case is a threat to the world as a whole–North Korea is not the USSR. The more realistic fear is regional destruction on an unprecedented scale. The United States can win a war against North Korea, provided China does not intervene, but with what stains on its soul? My president is casually threatening a level of violence that could kill close to 26 million people, most of them utterly innocent and powerless in this situation. Not global destruction, but bad enough.
But I’m a child of the eighties. You say “nuclear,” and I think Mutually Assured Destruction. I think nuclear winter. I think the end of the world.
I think I’ve got a couple of books I really want to publish before I die.
I don’t know what actually should be done about North Korea. Such things are outside of my field of expertise and beyond the scope of this blog. I do know what should be done about climate change, but I do not know what I can do, personally, to make it happen, beyond what I have been doing, which is not much and isn’t working. Somehow, we’re collectively feeding the plant. We’re feeding it through our elections, our purchases, and by our prioritization of other issues for reasons that anybody would understand. How do you ? How do you stop being an ordinary person?
A nuclear bomb can destroy a city. But so can climate change–we’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen worse. There are people in Puerto Rico who will go to sleep tonight in houses that have no running water, no electricity, and no roof.
How do you stop being ordinary?

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

As I write this, it seems likely that Dominica has been destroyed, given that the island has been raked by a Category 5 hurricane–that’s Maria, in case anyone has lost track. The storm will hit Puerto Rico and St. Croix, but where it will go next is unclear. A strike to the mainland US cannot be ruled out, possibly at Cape Hatteras and maybe again at Cape Cod, but at least it will not recapitulate Irma or Harvey.

I’m underneath a hurricane right now myself (Jose), though only the edge, so conditions here are not bad. The weather is blustery, with occasional rain. The main part of the storm is out in the Atlantic, and it seems likely to sty Although I wouldn’t want to have to go out in it, but we’re pretty safe right here, at the moment. The important thing to notice is that we’ve had three major hurricanes in the Atlantic that made landfall within just over thirty days.

This is turning out to be one of the years when climate change is more obvious.

I want to emphasize, though, that weather is still variable, and that if next year we have hardly any Atlantic hurricanes, climate change will still be just as real. If we don’t want deniers using random cold snaps to fuel their arguments, we should refrain from equivalent lapses of logic. The problem of Maria and her colleagues is not that they prove climate change (they may, but so do lots of other factors) but that they illustrate it.

This is what is coming. This is what normal is going to look like.

I know I keep saying this, but it keeps being true, and honestly it just seems silly to write aout anything else as yet another Cat 5 hurricane bears down.

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In case anyone hasn’t noticed, there’s a real possibility that we could lose another city to a monster hurricane next week.

(Yes, we haven’t lost Houston permanently, just like we didn’t lose New Orleans permanently after Katrina. I don’t mean to imply otherwise, only that we’re looking at very big-deal phenomena, here)

Hurricane Irma is, as I write, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic (Pacific storms have been stronger) and it’s pointed, more or less, at Florida. It will certainly wreak havoc in the Caribbean, although which islands will be most strongly affected is still unclear. The various computer models all agree that it will head more or less arrow-straight for the Straits of Florida, when it will abruptly turn some species of north. Why will it turn? I haven’t found an explanation. It’s tempting to say that the power of the wishes and prayers of the people of Houston are having an impact, but if wishes and prayers worked like that, Houston wouldn’t have flooded to begin with. Probably there is an entirely prosaic explanation the TV weather people aren’t bothering to talk about. The important part is where will Irma go after it turns? It could enter the Gulf. It could buzz-saw up the East Coast (and hit me, not incidentally).

Or, Irma could send a 20-foot storm surge across Miami, a city of almost six million people less than seven feet above sea level–one that’s already starting to flood regularly on the highest tides.

I want to be very clear–I’m not saying that Irma will destroy Miami, since the meteorologists aren’t saying that yet, and they know better than I do. I’m also not saying that Miami, which might well escape, is somehow more important than Antigua and Puerto Rico and parts of Cuba, and the other places that almost certainly won’t escape. This is going to be very, very bad somewhere, regardless of where that somewhere turns out to be. What I am saying is that this is how national-scale climate disasters are going to happen, maybe this year, maybe in the future.

If Miami floods catastrophically next week (or if New Orleans floods again, which is also possible), the United States will be dealing with three such floods simultaneously (the third is Baton Rouge, which flooded due to a rather bizarre weather pattern last year and has still not fully recovered), two of them in major cities–and the hurricane season still has two months to run. A third major hit this year is not out of the question (say, New York? or Boston? or Washington DC?). I don’t mean to make like Chicken Little–just because catastrophe sounds plausible does not mean it’s going to happen–and the United States, as a nation, is very rich and can probably absorb all these costs. State and local officials will likely do excellent jobs to protect life and limb in the teeth of yet another storm, and together we will get through this. But you can see how the costs of multiple disasters can pile up. And then pile up again.

Climate change makes disasters more likely.  This summer may be showing us what the future looks like.

But is that the same as saying that the frequency of disaster has actually increased, yet. The way the laws of chance work, a clump of bad luck doesn’t necessarily mean anything. You can get heads three times in a row–the unusual run is just balanced out by more tails, if you flip your coin enough times. Humans are notoriously bad at telling the difference between a clump of luck and actual meaningful pattern, which is why we invented statistics. Personally, I’m guessing that we are in the midst of meaningful change, but as I’ve written before, I haven’t been able to find real figures on whether our rate of extreme weather events is changing. I am fairly confident that such figures exist, and I wish they were easier to find.

Even without figures on whether extremes as a group are occurring more often, we can look at certain types of extremes. Hurricanes, for example, have been studied extensively but with difficulty, because of problems in the historical data. Whether hurricanes are getting more frequent is therefor hard to say, though the proportion of hurricanes that grow to category 4 or 5, or that reach higher latitudes, does seem to be increasing, and storm surges are definitely getting worse because of sea level rise.

But say there’s a category of disaster that could be being increased by climate change but isn’t, yet. So? What we know is that climate change is real and that it makes catastrophe more likely. Must we wait until all types of catastrophe are obviously worse before we act?