The Climate in Emergency

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


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Ellicott City

Ellicott City, Maryland flooded again, about a week and a half ago (May 27th). We are not talking about a little water in the parking lots, here—for those who haven’t seen the coverage, the streets became rapids. I’ve seen video of cars flowing along in the water, their windshield wipers beating back and forth forlornly. I keep thinking about the people in those cars. The first floors of the buildings are completely gutted. At least one man has died.

The river crested at a record 23.6 feet after rising almost 18 feet in just two hours.

What makes the flood especially upsetting for locals is that a similarly catastrophic flood all but destroyed the town only two years ago. The community was just getting itself together again, and now they have to start over again.

Since 1768, Ellicott City has flooded 15 times. Not all of the floods have been catastrophic, but the town does get wet often. It’s not just bad luck; Ellicott is an old mill town, so of course it sits in a place with plenty of water power. Three streams converge here and flow into the Patapsco River, bringing all the runoff from a large, bowl-shaped valley straight through town.

But while Ellicott City has always been flood-prone, but they haven’t always been the same kind of flood. Traditionally, the problem was the rise of the Patapsco, meaning that the floodwater would rise up into the community. Now, the smaller streams also jump their banks, which is why recent floods have roared down through the town, turning the streets into rapids.

What’s different?

Development over recent decades has increased the area of impermeable surface in the watershed dramatically, making flooding much more likely. Also, of course, there’s climate change.

As readers may know, climate change in general increases the chance of extreme weather. Rain storms are both less frequent and more intense, so that areas with no net change in rainfall get both more droughts and more floods. And in the Northeast of the United States, or, by some measures, the whole eastern part of the country, rain intensity is increasing faster than anywhere else in the country. So, yes, repeat catastrophes such as Ellicott City has suffered are part of the new normal.

(Note that we’re talking about likelihood, not possibility: for the same location to get two 1000-year floods back-to-back, as Ellicott City has, wouldn’t have been impossible under the old climate regime, because “1000-year flood” doesn’t mean once per 1000 years, but rather a one-in-1000 chance of occurrence in any year. It’s unlikely, but entirely possible, to have several in a row. The issue is whether these really were 1000-year floods; climate change and development together may have changed the odds.)

In fact, recent flooding in Maryland (an identical weather pattern developed over Frederick two weeks earlier) may have a more direct connection to warming temperatures, although this information comes from an article arguing almost the opposite point. Apparently, we have been “stuck in a late July weather pattern, one in which the jet stream has built a ridge of high pressure over the Mid-Atlantic.” But because this was May and early June, the ocean waters are still cool. The combination sends unusually wet weather into Maryland. So, while the author was quite correct in describing all of this as a local weather event, something that could occur by bad luck regardless of climate change, it is a weather event caused by the atmosphere behaving as though July had come two months early—hotter, in other words.

Yes, weather is weather and climate is climate, and it’s worth bearing the difference in mind, but when unseasonably warm weather causes record-breaking storms, it seems disingenuous to say global warming is not at fault.

But disaster is never just about climate. Ellicott City is far from being the only flood-prone area in Maryland, but most flood zones aren’t aren’t also the busy centers of quaint historic districts. So putting a city in harm’s way, and then exacerbating the harm through risky development, is definitely part of the picture.

The other major issue is that Ellicott City has been studying its flood risk and fielding proposals for mitigation since the 1970’s. Not much has been done. One proposal offered after a flood in 2011 was actually rejected by town leaders as too expensive. They changed their mind after the 2016 flood, but the work hadn’t been completed yet before the place flooded again. This historical failure to act is having serious political consequences, now.

“Natural disasters” are always the result of a combination of extreme weather (or extreme geology) and human responses to those events. The scale of the tragedy is always either compounded or mitigated by the economic wherewithal of the affected people and by political decisions about acceptable risk, acceptable loss, and how much money certain people’s lives and livelihoods are worth.

And now, climate change itself is a result of decisions, both large and small, about who or what we are going to treat as important.

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Childhood

Here I am, visiting my mother, who still lives in the house we moved to when I was two, spending time with my sister’s kids, and I am about to go watch A Wrinkle in Time, a movie made from the first real chapter book I ever read entirely by myself. I was nine years old. I have not stopped reading since.

It’s easy to think about children and climate change and be terrified. I don’t know what my sister’s kids are going to have to deal with, but it’s likely to include a lot of things that aren’t good. But at the moment I’d rather approach the subject from the angle of memory. It’s my own childhood I’m thinking of today.

I was born in 1977, meaning that my first winter included the famous Blizzard of ’78. Later, when I noticed winters getting less snowy, my parents pointed out that I’d been biased by an unusually snowy first experience. They may have been right. Climate change does not necessarily mean less snow–often, it means more of the white stuff, actually, as long as winter temps stay below the freezing point. Climate change brings floods, and some floods happen to be white and fluffy, is all. But yes, I was thinking about the issue. I knew.

I remember the moment I learned about climate change. I don’t know why I remember–I learned about a lot of things as a child, without remembering the actual lesson, but that one stuck out. My Dad and I were standing outside, on the edge of our parking lot, near where the grass began and the yard went back and back. Being a scholarly sort, my Dad was always reading things and passing on the ideas that interested him. A group of scientists had made a chicken embryo grow teeth by turning on the latent dinosaur DNA still in the bird genome. Bird feathers contain no blue pigment; feathers that appear blue have microscopic structures that bend light. Ginkgos are the only trees that make sperm that swim. And, on that one day, he said the planet is getting warmer because of pollution, and in about ten years, the difference is going to start getting noticeable. If it gets warm enough, the ice at the poles will melt and the sea level will rise. If ALL of it melted,our house would be under water and we’d have to come visit it in a boat, with SCUBA gear. He seemed to like that idea, visiting the house in a boat. I guess the vividness of the example appealed to him as a writer.

I understood the boat thing would not likely happen–melting would take time, more time than individual human beings have. But I also understood that the world that I knew would change and that I would watch some of the changes. “When I grow up,” I remember thinking, “I’m going to move to the North Pole, so I can still have winter.”

I was six, I think. Somewhere in there. That would make it around 1984.

Growing up, I noticed that winter seemed to be getting warmer, a kind of “bottoming out,” where fall and spring would seem normal, but the cold stretch in the middle wasn’t reliable anymore. I have no idea if that was even a real local pattern, not my imagination, and it probably wasn’t related to climate change because signal can’t be separated from noise with as few data as my experience gave me. But I thought I was seeing it, and it scared me. I interpreted the heat waves of 1998 as climate change, too, but there I’m on somewhat firmer ground, as that was a particularly fierce El Niño, and no one yet knows the connection between El Niños and climate change. There could be a connection. But while I wasn’t really able to see the signs myself, the global climate was changing.

The last May whose temperature fell below the 20th-century average occurred before I was born, but I lived through the last time we had any month below average–it was a February, and I was seven. I don’t expect to ever have another. The sea level rose globally, a subtle thing, but enough to make a difference in coastal floods–it adds up to just over two and a half inches since my birth. Precipitation in the Northeast, my region, has increased by 8% since 1991, relative to the first half of the 20th century, though it’s hard to say how much of that is climate change-related. I wonder how much that has to do with the local increase in mold and mildew. When I was a kid, summers were humid, yes, but in the last ten years or so, my mother has had to use a dehumidifier, not simply for personal comfort, but to prevent the walls from molding. That was never necessary before.

Personal observation is suspect, relative to trends–that why we invented statistics, because human beings naturally look for trends, but most of the ones we find unaided are imaginary. I know climate change is happening, not because I’ve seen it, but because researchers whose methods I trust, and to some extent understand, have measured it. But I’ve lived it. I’m forty years old. Climatologists look for changes over large blocks of time, and the minimum-sized block is 30 years. That I live in a different climate than I did that day my Dad and I spoke can now be confirmed by science.

I’m also old enough that my generation is fast becoming another generation that didn’t do anything about climate change. The future is becoming the past. It’s time to treat this as the emergency it is and act with the urgency of a person whose hair is on fire.


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New Year, New Normal

It’s cold.

What I mean is that the weather is colder than its been recently in the part of the world where I happen to be. The simple answer to those who insist the world can’t be warming while they personally shiver is that climate change involves increased extremes, including the occasional extreme cold snap. But it’s also possible for one area to have record-breaking cold even as the world on average is unusually warm, as has happened in recent years. And it’s possible for conditions to seem unusually cold even while still above the 20th century average, because we’ve grown used to warmer conditions still.

I haven’t checked to see which of these concepts applied to New Years’ Day in Eastern Maryland, 2018.

What I know is that I turned up on Assateague Island for the annual New Years’ Day Beachwalk, which my husband usually leads, and conditions were brilliant, bright, and beautiful. Clear, blue sky, a stiff breeze whipping the waves to photogenic whitecaps, and a windchill of seven degrees.

I want to emphasize that this event is not supposed to be masochistic. It’s not like the Polar Bear Plunge, in nearby Ocean City, where people actually jump in the water on the first of January, no, it’s an educational walk where you get to stroll along with a naturalist, learning about the island’s history, its sand, and its sea shells. Some years over three hundred people show up.

This year, we had 34 people, almost half of them organizers, volunteers, and hangers-on. My husband did his best, under the circumstances, but there was no shelter from the wind anywhere, and people were having trouble concentrating because it was just too cold. He cut the walk in half and brought everyone back to the starting point early for hot chocolate. Then he and I went home and had Chinese take-out.

Everything everybody says about cold snaps in a warming world is true–climate change involves extremes in all directions, it can be cold here but warm elsewhere, and these temps only seem as cold as they do because everything has been so warm of late.

But what happens when we get used to warm weather?

It’s not like I’ve never experienced single-digit temps before–I used to live in New Hampshire, where I regularly biked to and from school in the winter. Cold was normal, and seldom bothered me. I dressed for the cold as a matter of routine. But now…do I need a hat, or is a hood good enough? How thick do my socks need to be? How many layers do I need? I can’t quite remember. I’m out of practice. Give me another week or two of this and it will all come back to me, but Monday morning I wasn’t there yet.

Whether a given temperature is historically normal or globally notable is less important for most people than whether it’s been typical lately. A surprising cold snap in Maryland might involve temperatures that are perfectly normal for Vermont or New Hampshire, but that doesn’t mean the Marylanders have adequate coats, hats, and gloves, nor do they necessarily have lifestyles and habits that make sense in such temperatures. Where a New Englander might have recreational activities that require cold temps (like ice fishing), on the Lower Eastern Shore, this kind of weather disrupts everybody’s plans. Sometimes the surprising cold is dangerous.

The way changing climate works, cold weather doesn’t go away, it just gets less likely. While I haven’t seen any figures on the matter, I’m wondering if rising average temperatures are resulting in more disruption–and more danger–when cold snaps do occur.


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A Family Expecting

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew, several years ago. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for two reasons; one, today has been two busy to write, two, the piece is still a good way to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth birthday, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

More years pass, and my nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He has friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year, he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. The American white birches are all dead, killed by a changing climate. It’s sad.

Eventually, my nephew becomes a very old man, a spry but somewhat stooped 89-year-old, mostly bald, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out of his ears, his breathing deep and slow and marred by occasional coughs and rumbles. He has lived long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts have reworked the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity has pulled away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters have befallen him–the worst-case scenarios have not played out, but mostly he’s just been lucky. Plenty of disasters have happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can. But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above fantasy several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and has carried treats to the chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think my nephew knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.


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Looking at Costs

The news today is that the US Federal government spends a lot of money on disasters and, because of climate change, is set to spend a lot more.

The story has turned up both online and on the PBS NewsHour, and probably elsewhere; Republican Senator, Susan Collins, of Maine, and Democratic Senator, Maria Cantwell, of Washington, together asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into how much money is spent on disaster assistance programs, plus the economic losses through flood and crop insurance—and how these costs may increase in the future due to climate change.

The Associated Press headline is “GAO: Climate Change Already Costing Us Billions.”

Maybe.

Look, I’ll be the first one to say that the headline is plausible–disaster spending is increasing frighteningly fast, and climate change has already made several forms of natural disaster (heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires) worse in measurable ways, as I’ve explored elsewhere in this blog. But the article is a bit fuzzy on the details, as are the other articles on related subjects I’ve found, and it would be nice to get clear on these things.

First bit of fuzz?

From the AP article:

A Government Accountability Office report released Monday said the federal government has spent more than $350 billion over the last decade on disaster assistance programs and losses from flood and crop insurance. That tally does not include the massive toll from this year’s three major hurricanes and wildfires, expected to be among the most costly in the nation’s history.

The report predicts these costs will only grow in the future, potentially reaching a budget busting $35 billion a year by 2050. The report says the federal government doesn’t effectively plan for these recurring costs, classifying the financial exposure from climate-related costs as “high risk.”

Ok, $350 billion-plus over ten years, increasing over the next three decades to $35 billion per year. Except that one tenth of 350 billion is 35 billion so it seems that we’re averaging over 35 billion per year already.

Another bit of fuzz is that not all of those dollars can be laid at the feet of climate change—if climate change weren’t happening, there would still be extreme weather, just less of it. How much less? How much is climate change costing us? More than zero, obviously, but how much?

I have not found an answer, so far. I’m not sure if there is one. How do you sort out how much of a storm is due to climate change? It may be possible to use statistics to tease that out, but only for aspects of weather that can be quantified—and these aspects may or may not scale with how “bad” an event is, which in turn may or may not scale with how expensive it is. The cost of a storm (or a drought, or a fire) is not just a factor of the weather event itself, but also of which human concerns happen to be in the way, and how much money the relevant officials choose to spend. It’s worth noting that the impact of disaster would have increased in recent decades even if the climate were not changing, because every year there is more development in existence that can be damaged. Go back far enough, and there was no Federal spending on disasters, not because there were no disasters, but because the Federal government did not involve itself in paying for them.

How do you sort out all of those threads?

The GOA study was not designed to measure climate change—it was designed to estimate how Federal costs are likely to go up if current policy remains the same, given that the climate is changing. The idea is presumably to examine whether current policy needs to change and how. The use of the study’s results as a climate wake-up call is legitimate, but partial.

It’s also worth noting that the figure of $350 billion, is also partial. It doesn’t include the startlingly high costs of this year’s catastrophic hurricanes. It doesn’t include costs borne by states nor by private individuals. Nor does it include Federal expenditures related to climate change that don’t come under the heading of disaster assistance, such as wildlands firefighting or the efforts of coastal parks to adjust their infrastructures to rising sea levels—costs that are met through the ordinary annual budgets of programs that would exist even if climate change did not. But without climate change, those funds could have gone to something else. Those budgets could have been stretched farther.

Ultimately, despite all these complications and provisos, the question raised by Senator Collins and Senator Cantwell is a good one. If climate change ends up being the thing that radically alters, or even does in, the United States of America, the end won’t come in a made-for-Hollywood superstorm or a heatwave from the imagination of Dante, it will come through unravelling budgets. It will come through a reduction of prosperity, a loss of options, a constraint of national choices.

We will see the country stop being able to take care of its own, and whatever political repercussions flow from that uncomfortable truth.

 

 

 


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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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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.