The Climate in Emergency

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


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Fire

And the wildfires continue. At least thirteen states host wildfires at present, with Idaho, Washington, Northern California, and Arizona being the hardest hit. The smoke from these fires is mostly blowing north and causing serious air quality problems in Canada. And for the first time ever, the US forest Service is spending 50% of its budget on wildfire suppression alone–the agency is now pulling funds out of its other programs in order to pay for fire suppression.

And yes, climate change is officially involved. There is a strong relationship between climate at fire: in Montana, every one degree on temperature increase doubles the area that burns. Other areas have different figures. More wildfire is part of the prediction for many areas of the country in coming decades–warmer temperatures, more intense droughts, and more electrical storms (plus more insect damage of trees, thanks to the warmth) add up to more fire. This year has been hot, and this fire season obviously isn’t anything the Forest Service was prepared to handle–we’re in a new normal, as they say. There just aren’t enough firefighters.

And firefighters themselves say they’ve never seen wildfire do this before.

I have just watched the excellent short film, Unacceptable Risk: Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change. You can watch it online, here. In this mini-documentary, firefighters in Colorado’s Front range talk about how different wildfires are now, at least in their area. Colorado once rarely had large fires. Now, fires last for weeks or months. Fires can occur almost year round, can grow dramatically at night (when cool temperatures used to make fires die down–the greenhouse effect does not so much heat up the planet as keep it from cooling down, so it’s more obvious at night), spread downhill, and flare up in December. It’s not just weird–firefighters rely on their knowledge of fire behavior to plan attacks, make decisions about resources, and keep their people safe. None of that works anymore. As one man interviewed in the film says “it’s surprises that kill people.”

These are just personal experiences, anecdotes and observations shared by individuals. It’s possible to present any message you want to by choosing the right people to interview and then editing appropriately–personal experience can be extremely misleading, which is why we invented science. But at the same time, when someone as familiar with fire as these people are says fires have changed, that’s important to look into.

And in this case, where we know fires are changing, anecdote can tell us what that change really looks like on a human level–and it looks terrifying and sad.

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Your Tuesday Update: Typhoons

Earlier this month, there were two typhoons in the Pacific at the same time, one of them a super-typhoon, the other just shy of that mark. Typhoons are simply hurricanes that happen in the northern Pacific–for some reason, the same storm is called different things in different oceans. A super-typhoon is one with maximum sustained wind speeds of 150 mph.

Two typhoons at once is not actually all that unusual–the Pacific produces more storms (and more powerful storms) than the Atlantic does–although two super-typhoons would have been startling. The real news here is that Typhoon Goni was the second storm to hit Saipan in two weeks and its sister-storm, Super-typhoon Atsani was the 5th super-typhoon this year, which is five times as many as in a typical year.

I don’t know that this is specifically a climate change story–I mean, we’re living in a changed climate, so of course it impacts these storms somehow, I just don’t know if this year’s typhoon season is making climate change obvious at the moment. I don’t know how unusual it really is. But here in the United States, where I write, we seldom get much news from other countries unless we go looking for it. And those who keep an eye on extreme weather in order to get a feel for climate change should hear about what’s going on in the Pacific these days.


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Last Call

California, Oregon, and Washington State are on fire at present. As are Idaho, Montana, and Nevada. This past week, the number of active wildfires rose to over a hundred. 1.1 million acres have been burned. Exhausted fire crews can no longer respond to all the blazes and for the first time in almost ten years the US Army is being sent in to help. 71 fire experts from Australia and New Zealand are on their way. Towns have been evacuated, houses destroyed, people have been killed. This appears to be the big one.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that much of the region is still in a multi-year drought that has certainly been exacerbated by climate change and that July was Earth’s hottest month since record-keeping began.

I have written about the connection between climate change and wildfire before, here and here and here. I could write the same article again, about how drought and heat work together to change fire behavior and about how human activity and natural variation work together to create increasing disaster. But why? Next year there will be more fires and I’ll have another opportunity to say exactly the same things.

A day or two ago I watched an interview on TV with the parents of a fallen firefighter. I have been unable to find a transcript, or even proper attribution of the broadcast anywhere online, but the father of the young man said something along the line of “They’re saying he was a hero. And he was a hero. We’re proud of him. But we were proud of him before. We wish he wasn’t a hero; we wish he were still here with us.”

That stuck with me.

There is a human cost to climate change, and that cost is on the individual level. When we talk about increased danger from forest fires, this is what that means–an increased chance of news like this. We’re not just talking about numbers–these people have names, histories, families.

Some sources have mentioned as many as 13 firefighters dead so far this year, a somewhat high but not extraordinary number, but several of them died during training or from other circumstances not directly related to the fire. At least five were actually killed in the line of duty, although I am not certain my information is complete–there may be more, and in any case the season is not over.  When a firefighter dies, his or her companions sometimes say “she/he answered the last call.” A call being a call to duty, like a pager going off in the night, a fire. You can’t refuse to go.

Here are the names I found.

Dave Ruhl, of Rapid City, South Dakota, died on the Frog Fire in the Modic National Forest, in California. He died on Friday, July 30th , while scouting a fire zone by vehicle. His body was not found until the following morning and the specific cause of his death was not initially announced.

Ruhl, 38, was a veteran firefighter who normally worked as an engine captain for the Black Hills National Forest. He had been at Black Hills for 14 years. Earlier in life he had served with the US Coast Guard. He also used to work as a correctional officer in South Dakota. He was originally from Wisconsin. He had a wife and two children. Friends and coworkers describe him as a passionate and professional firefighter and a quiet, highly respected leader.

Michael Hallenbeck, of Shingle Springs, died Saturday, August 8th, on the Sierra Fire in El Dorado County, California, when a tree fell on him during initial attack.He is survived by his parents and his sister.

Hallenbeck, 21, was working on his first fire. He loved being a firefighter and his parents describe him as very excited about his new job. He was an avid sportsman and outdoorsman. He snowboarded, hiked, and played football, basketball, golf, and other sports. His parents are devastated, but very proud of him.

Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac, and Richard Wheeler died on August 19th in a wildfire near Twisp, Washington. While scouting a large fire that had already triggered widespread evacuation orders, their vehicle crashed and the fire overtook and burned them. Several other men who were with them survived but with severe injuries; one of the survivors was in critical condition at the time of the report.

Tom Zbyszewski, 20, was a physics major at Whitman College. This was his second summer as a firefighter. His parents worked for the Forest Service as well—his mother still does. His father is a retired firefighter and has said publicly that he wishes it were him, not his young son, who died that way.

Andrew Zajac, 26, wrestled and played football and the cello in high school before attending Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and then the University of South Dakota, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. He was in his second year as a firefighter when he died. He leaves behind a spouse as well as friends and family who remember him as a hard worker, an athlete, and a man who loved the outdoors.

Richard Wheeler, 31, was a fourth-generation firefighter. He is from South Haven, Michigan, and graduated from Grand Valley State University.


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Your Tuesday Update: Lobsters

Earlier today, I heard someone on the  TV news that Southern New England’s lobster catch is at an “historic low” this year, while Maine’s lobster catch is very high. Climate change may explain the shift, as it forces lobsters to migrate north to find cooler water. I have been unable to find these exact statements online and I did not record the details of the TV announcement–but the lobster fishery is generally in trouble, both from the warmer water itself and from the acidifying ocean which tends to nibble away at their shells. Curiously, the Gulf of Maine is warming extremely fast right now, much faster than most other ocean regions, and no one is exactly sure why–but the change is bringing southern species into these waters and pushing the more familiar animals north.

What I’m wondering right now–I’ve heard (from actual scientist friends) that Maine’s lobster fishery is sustainable, that it’s current system of licensed lobster fishers actually works. But what is sustainable under one set of circumstances might not be when circumstances change. My concern now is–if a northward migration is causing the lobster population in Maine waters to increase, might that simply be a sign of the same number of lobsters squished into a smaller area? And might the greater density create the illusion of a greater number of lobsters and in turn cause an expansion of the harvest? In which case, Maine’s lobsters will face an increase of hunting pressure right when they are already coping with rapidly deteriorating conditions.

This is not good.


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The Jellyfish Are Back

I am in Maine this summer, on the coast. I know, I know, it’s not polite to brag, but my point is I’ve started seeing jellyfish. One washed in, among the seaweed, my first week here–a moonjelly, I think, dead, and so battered from the waves that its tentacles were gone and its margins looked chewed. Then, last week, I went down to the shoreline and spotted another jelly–and another and another, all floating among the wavelets of the bay on a rising tide. I couldn’t stay long enough to do a real survey, so I don’t know how many there really were, but I counted well over ten in the small patch of water right in front of me. A few days after that, a woman I’d just met told me about having gone out in a boat and finding herself entirely surrounded by hundreds of jellies.

Last year, the Gulf of Maine was visited by huge numbers of jellyfish and this year it seems to be happening again. Nor in Maine alone–many parts of the world are seeing huge blooms of jellies, and nobody really knows why.

As you might have guessed, climate change is one of the primary culprits.

About the Jellies

Jellyfish are one of those subjects that everyone thinks they understand–and they are wrong. Obviously, the animals are not really fish. There are those who want to call them “jellies” instead, to avoid confusion, but since the animals clearly are not jelly, either (they do not come in grape or strawberry flavor), that doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. A better term is medusae (singular, medusa), meaning any of those gelatinous bell-shaped animals with stinging cells. The stinging cells mark them as cnidarians, a phylum that also includes corals, sea anemones, and several other groups (a “phylum” is a very large group of distantly related living things. To put it in perspective, all vertebrates belong to the same subphylum).

Two other groups of animals are often mistakenly lumped in with jellyfish, since they, too, have jellylike bodies–the Portuguese man o’ war and its relatives (which are actually siphonophores, another type of cnidarian); and comb jellies, which actually comprise a whole different phylum (Ctenophora) because they lack stinging cells. All three groups, medusae, siphonophores, and ctenophores, sometimes turn up in articles about the recent swarms of jellyfish–I’ll talk only about medusae, but much of this may apply to the others, too.

Jellyfish can’t swim purposefully–not because they lack brains, many brainless animals do move purposefully, but because they are adapted to a very passive lifestyle. A few sit on the bottom, but most float where the current takes them, pulsing their bells to keep water and food floating past their tentacles. Thus, when jellyfish “blooms” occur, it isn’t because the jellies have swum anywhere. Instead, either currents have pushed them together or the the jellies in one area have reproduced very quickly for some reason. All medusae sting, but very few are actually a concern for humans–although I have heard some hints that people who are allergic to bee stings may also be unusually sensitive to jellyfish stings. Personally, I am unusually sensitive to both.

How Is Climate Involved?

Jellyfish breed faster in warmer water, so climate change benefits them directly. Also, since medusae can eat pretty much anything small enough to fit in their mouths, and since they can tolerate poor water quality, anything that renders the seas unlivable for other animals clears the way for jellies. In this sense, the act rather like certain invasive plants in that their proliferation is a symptom of larger ecological collapse. Global warming (and the ocean acidification that goes along with it), overfishing, pollution, and other problems may all be contributing to a situation that is very good for jellyfish precisely because it is bad for everything else.

But all of the above only increases the likelihood of large jellyfish blooms–because their populations vary anyway, it is hard to pin any specific bloom on climate. They are rather like weather, that way.

So, How Much Do We Really Know About This?

Um, nothing. Or, next to nothing. Scientists do seem pretty clear on what conditions are good for medusae in general, and while the “jelly ocean” hypothesis (the idea that environmental collapse could result in an ocean dominated by medusae) is still a guess, it is an educated guess. But as to specifics?

We still know next to nothing about where jellies normally occur and in what numbers, so it’s hard to say whether they are really increasing. For example, there is no such thing as an expert in Maine jellyfish–the closest we’ve got are scientists willing to do the work to become experts, except they can’t do that because there is no money available for research. At present, they are asking members of the public to at least call in any jellyfish sightings in the region.

But the jelly blooms do seem odd, especially to locals–and while such hunches are hardly conclusive, when people who understand an area well think something is unusual, they are probably right.

What’s Wrong with Jelly?

You mean, aside from the “ick” factor? Personally, I find medusae fascinating and lovely, but they are made of wiggly slime and I have serious texture aversions to anything that wiggles. But aside from that, is there anything really wrong with a whole bunch of jellyfish?

Yes.

Big jellyfish blooms can clog nuclear power plant water intakes, shut down swimming beaches, clog up fish nets and traps, and kill huge numbers of fish in aquaculture pens. Some blooms are so intense that the sea can become almost solid jelly–there is no room for anything else. And, of course, if the blooms are indeed a symptom of larger problems,  hundreds of miles of jellyfish are a major cause for concern.

Basically, we’re looking at another example of the “new normal” of an imbalanced world–and just like all the other examples, we face the problem with virtually no solid information to work with.


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Your Tuesday Update on Wednesday

Hi, all,

Looks like I did not post on Tuesday as I meant to! As noted, for the time being I’m only doing mini posts on Tuesdays and doing a full post on Thursday. This, then, is your mini-post.

Last night, I heard on the news a story about extreme weather all over the US–flooding, hail, a dust storm, all within the same few days, though widely separated in space. I also heard my husband exclaim that California is rather seriously on fire right now. He’s a firefighter, and reads national fire reports regularly. There have been two fatalities this year associated with wildfire, and a huge amount of money invested in getting the fires contained. But he doesn’t know whether any of this is actually unusual in an objective sense.

ARE we in a spot of climate-change-induced bad weather? Certainly we could be, as climate change makes both droughts and floods more likely, but I do not know whether this week is actually unusual, or if the newscasters just wanted to talk about the weather for whatever reason. I did not do a thorough search for information. But I did hop online and poke around and I found an interesting article about different kinds of extreme weather. What struck me is that while heavy rain events are getting more frequent, there’s no evidence that tornadoes and severe thunderstorms are–because we do not actually know how many such storms are normal. Up until the last few decades, most supercell storms must simply have gone unrecorded. Now we have a lot of weather radar capable of spotting most of them, but there’s a lot we don’t know. For example, most tornadoes never have their windspeed measured, so their severity is measured strictly by how much damage they cause. That means there is no way to compare tornadoes to each other independent of what they happen to pass over. The whole thing is similar to the situation with hurricanes, only worse, because we have even fewer data to work from.

So when they say there’s no evidence that tornadoes are increasing, there’s also no evidence that they are not.

Here is the article I read, if you want to check it out.