The Climate in Emergency

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

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A week or so ago, we visited the St. Michaels area in Maryland. And the corn was bad.

I mean the corn in the fields,not all of which had been harvested yet. Have you seen corn growing? Are you familiar with it? When corn plants are stressed, the leaves, which usually have wavy edges and an arched, downward-pointing shape, instead become straight and point upward, like green swords. I’ve seen them like that often, but it’s usually temporary; eventually, rains come, and the plants relax. What I saw last week was different. The corn plants had  stayed stressed right through to the end of their season, and the stood, dry and ready for harvest, leaves still pointing at the sky, the stems abnormally thin. The harvest was starting to come in, and we heard that in some places, the yield was a third of normal.

Watching Drought

I see drought in Maryland often–usually mild, sometimes moderate, but it is often. And it’s part of climate change.

It’s not that climate change is making Maryland drier overall; in fact, Maryland’s annual precipitation is increasing slightly. But the increase is coming in the winter and the spring. Summer and Fall have about the same precipitation that they always have, but higher air temperatures have increased evaporation and transportation, leaving the soil drier during the growing season. And of course, as in other areas, more of the precipitation we do get is in large storms, leaving longer, drier, periods of no rain in between.

But, as I said, I’ve never seen the corn look so bad–which is why it surprised me to see that the area is not under a severe drought.

Current Conditions

I took a look at the US Drought Monitor, a website that doesn’t archive its pages, meaning that the link won’t show the same information next week. My area is not listed as in drought at all; that’s correct, though we are borderline. It’s raining now, and we were starting to need it badly. About half the rest of the state is listed as “abnormally dry,” which, according to the key at the bottom of the page, is enough to stunt crops and increase fire danger. And the area immediately around the Chesapeake Bay, which includes St. Michaels, is in “moderate drought,” which is enough to reduce grain yields–and, curiously, honey production.

However, the actual conditions on the ground seem rather worse than that. Eyeballing drought severity is a pretty unreliable activity at best, but the Drought Monitor site does include a note that it “focuses on broad-scale conditions. Local conditions may vary.” Just as a picture made of pixels obscures detail smaller than a pixel, the scale Drought Monitor uses must reduce areas below a certain size to a kind of average. There may be patches of severe drought that are smaller than that.

Conditions Elsewhere

In California, electricity is being shut off during periods of high fire danger because of the possibility of sparks from electrical cables causing wildfires. That certainly sounds dramatic, as though California’s drought must have entered new, unprecedented territory–but California’s famous megadrought is over. The US Drought Monitor shows only a few areas of “abnormally dry” on the edges of the state. But parts of California are fire-prone even when conditions are normal, and while this has been a very quiet year for fire (my husband is a fire fighter and keeps me informed) the terrible consequences of sparking power lines last year may have inspired an abundance of caution.

Conditions Vary

The reason I’ve brought all this up is to highlight the difficulty of assessing climate stories. Based on widely-available information, there is no extreme-weather emergency in Maryland at present, but since we know actual farmers, we know one is, indeed, in progress–and that there was one last year as well. Conversely, the stories about the electricity shut-offs in California suggest an unprecedented degree of fire risk, yet at least some evidence suggests that what we’re seeing is an unprecedented (but possibly quite correct) responses to typical fire risk. But what truth would someone on the ground reveal?

Climate change is real, and it is serious, and it is an emergency. And its symptoms can easily be different, or much worse, than the stories we hear on the news suggest.



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.


The California Drought Continues

California is still in a drought. It has been for four years straight. The rains in December, while dramatic, were not enough to break the drought. Voluntary water reduction has not worked, so the state has now enacted mandatory restrictions, but these do not apply to the heaviest users of water in the state. The drought is not likely to ease up.

There are a couple of subtleties here.

One is that California water years run from the end of September to the beginning of October–that means that the December rains count as part of this water year, not last, a point that could conceivably confuse some people who look at the records. No mere technicality, the concept of a water year reflects the principle that it is impossible to water the land retroactively–December’s rains could not have changed the dire straights of 2014 no matter how heavy they were. They could have eased the situation for 2015, but have not. Instead, precipitation for the year is already at or below average. To ease the drought, precipitation would have to be above average in order to make up the deficit.

Another is that the scary headline, that California only has one year of water left, refers only to stored water and not ground water or any new water that might come into the state over the next year. The figure also refers to a year of normal use and, thanks to the new regulations, use should be well below normal. So the situation is not quite as dire as it may seem. But it is dire enough.

Finally, droughts are relative. A drought is when there is less water than the users of water want–in practice, when there is less water than is necessary for whatever normally goes on at any given locality. That is why we don’t say deserts are in a state of permanent drought. But the relative nature of drought also means that any drought in California is worse now than it would have been a generation ago because there are more people in the state demanding water. This is one of the reasons the current drought is so historic.

And yes, climate change is relevant. These three years of drought have also been the hottest in California’s history. As the planet as a whole warms up, hot years like these become more likely. Hot weather increases evaporation and transpiration, meaning that the land needs more precipitation to get the same amount of soil moisture. That, too, makes any drought worse. It makes the possibility of another regional mega-drought, one lasting decades or centuries, even more serious.

But the very fact that demand makes drought worse also means that lessened demand could ease the drought. California could use less water.

Which is exactly what it’s doing now, of course, but I’m talking about something a good deal more radical. For example, California is an arid state, so why is it a major agricultural area? Why are there green lawns and swimming pools? I am struck by the fact that the water restrictions specify what people are allowed to do with water (e.g., not water lawns every day) not how much water they are allowed to use. The latter would, of course, make more sense–estimate how much water there is available, divide by the number of people, that sort of thing. But that is not how we normally do things–we don’t start with what we have and figure out how to adapt to those limits, we start with what we wished we had and go into debt in order to get it.

With water, going into debt means exhausting reservoirs and aquifers.

Much has been made of the fact that the water restrictions do not apply to California’s agriculture, despite the fact that it’s responsible for about 80% of the state’s water use. The simple, obvious explanation is that “big agriculture” has somehow gamed the system, although it is hard to see how it could, given that agriculture is only responsible for 2% of the state’s GDP. More likely, the fact that farming feeds people is relevant, as is the fact that almost, pistachio, and walnut trees, which together account for much of California agriculture, are long-lived perennials. If they die in a drought, that is a long term loss for the state–even for the country. If California’s agriculture fails, or if the industry has to pay a true free-market price for access to the region’s limited water, food prices across the country will respond.

California’s water woes are not just the result of global warming (in part), the situation also exemplifies why global warming is a problem to begin with–at bottom there is a fundamental refusal to treat the limits on our available resources as real. But layered on top of that are serious logistical, political, and moral complications that make a supposedly simple fix–use less–harder to realize. Is the US as a whole really willing to give up California’s agriculture? The irony is that, if we did stop sourcing our food from the other side of the country, we’d use less fossil fuel and contribute less to global warming.

The final thing that strikes me about the coverage of the drought is that while some people are clearly acknowledging that this is a new, climate-changed normal, I have not found anybody using the drought to call for reducing emissions. No one (that I have encountered) is demanding climate-sane political representatives and climate-sane policy to please save California. I hear people talking about maybe adapting to the new normal, but nothing about changing the disastrous course that is creating it.

California has 55 Electoral College votes, more than any other state in the country.