The Climate in Emergency

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


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Let’s Get Personal

The news is full of record-breaking heat-waves, torrential rains, mandatory evacuations because of wildfire, and the remnants of Hurricane Beryl just hit Dominica–which wouldn’t be so bad, since the storm had weakened considerably, except a lot of people there are still living in houses without real roofs since Hurricane Maria last year. All pretty normal, these days. But instead of the usual big-picture posts I usually make on these subjects (such as this one and this one and this one), I’d like to talk for a bit about someone I actually know.

I haven’t asked his permission to write about this, so I’ll keep his identity strictly under wraps–but he’s a real person, not  composite or a hypothetical character.

He’s a farmer. He has a very large farm which he typically puts into corn and soybeans, and then a cover crop in the winter. The corn and soybeans mostly become animal feed. He participates in a number of conservation programs, though he does not use organic methods. He usually makes a pretty good living for himself.

This year will likely be an exception.

In the spring, he got his corn planted, but then it all washed away in a series of torrential rains. So, he re-planted his corn, and started planting his soybeans. Then a serious drought developed and his crops are dying all over again. And, because of a technicality, much of what he has lost is not going to be eligible for crop insurance. Planting costs money and takes time (a lot of time–it’s a big farm), but he can’t not plant, despite expecting a total loss now on all his crops, because otherwise he won’t be eligible for the cover crop program. So he expects to lose money this year, and there’s not a whole lot he can do about it.

Since he normally makes a good living, one bad year is not going to break him. He’ll be ok. But the situation is a giant headache, and of course there is always the risk that multiple forms of bad luck could happen at once. He’s vulnerable right now, and that sort of vulnerability is never fun.

The spring floods were pretty definitely climate change-related, but otherwise I have no idea if this year has been a statistical anomaly relative to the historical average for his region. And I don’t intend to try to figure that out because it’s not my point.

My point is that, regardless of cause, this is what the economic repercussions of frequent extreme weather looks like–one problem following on another before you’ve quite caught up. And climate change does mean that years like this can be expected to happen more frequently. How many bust years can one farmer handle in a row? I don’t know.

One farmer having a bad year is a problem for his (or her) family and friends, but neither floods nor droughts happen to just one person at a time. Whole regions of increased crop failure stresses the crop insurance system and the food distribution system. In this case, we might see the price of chicken go up, since the birds have less available feed this year. The United States is wealthy enough that we can absorb the economic cost collectively, and those of us who are not friends with farmers will likely not notice the difference, but the cost is still real.

Given enough such costs, often enough, our absorptive capacity will eventually be compromised.

This is 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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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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Fire

Ok, now Canada is on fire. As of two days ago, at least, British Columbia had all of its firefighters working, and still needs more help. Alberta’s resources are likewise becoming strained and the province has invited in firefighters from Mexico to help–the teams from Jalisco have partnered with Alberta before and the two groups have coordinated their training programs.  Saskatchewan and Manitoba are also struggling with many major fires, and the smoke has triggered serious air quality warnings in parts of the United States. Virtually all of the US is now smoky to some degree; I saw a thin, grey-yellow haze in Maryland last week. This is not the first time I’ve seen continent-wide smoke, but it’s still a startling thing.

When disaster strikes, it’s reasonable these days to wonder how the problem relates to climate change.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the fires in Alaska. The international boundary between Alaska and Western Canada is essentially a figment of human imagination, so it’s not surprising that most of what I wrote about fire in Alaska also applies on the other side of the boarder. I have not been able to find much in the way of detail on the ways global warming might be causing these fires (or, more precisely, making them more likely); generally, the farther from the equator an area is, the more its climate is changing–and the changes involve not just increasing average temperature, but increased extremes. That includes more extreme droughts and heat-waves, which promotes more fires. So, while there are other factors in play, fires in Alaska and Canada are getting worse, and climate change is one of the reasons why. Fire is the new normal in Western Canada, that much is clear.

What is even clearer is that these fires also exacerbate climate change, not only by releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide but also by accelerating the melting of permafrost–that will eventually release huge quantities of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas. Then we could fall into a nightmare scenario, where more warming melts more permafrost, releasing more methane, which causes more warming….

The ironic thing here is that as sensitive as Canada is to climate change, the Canadian government has been very poor at doing anything about the problem. Canada has one of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emission rates in the world, it pulled out of the Kyoto Treaty, is not on track to meet its Copenhagen obligations, and is allowing the exploitation of the tar sands at horrible environmental and human cost.

Not to pick on Canada; it’s not like it’s the only country in the world that needs to get it’s act together on climate.

What strikes me in all of this is that we live in extraordinary times and by and large fail to notice that fact. Much of a continent lies veiled in smoke, half of Canada is rapidly exhausting its firefighting capacity, and science can tell us to expect more of the same. And yet, many people go on with life as before, continuing to talk about whether global warming will happen at some future point!

Recently, I’ve been watching The Abolitionists, on The American Experience. I can’t help but think that the timing of this rebroadcast is not a coincidence but instead represents a partial response by PBS to the deaths of Freddie Grey and others like him and to the recent violence against a string of black churches, beginning with the shooting in South Carolina. It is startling to watch the courage, dedication, and, in some cases, short-comings of the abolitionists against the context of current events.

However, I am also struck by how familiar the impatience of people like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown seems to other contexts. While other people in their society either insisted slavery wasn’t that bad or seemed content to let the trajectory of history “bend towards justice” with glacial slowness (apparently many white abolitionists were primarily concerned with the souls of white slaveholders and saw the welfare of actual black people as a kind of foot-note to the movement), they became insistent that slavery end now. Every minute of delay, they knew, was another minute of suffering and pain for millions of people. They were conscious of an emergency, and, each in their own way, acted on that knowledge.

Yes, I’m comparing slavery to climate change.

Some readers may accuse me of appropriating somebody else’s fight, of attempting to use the imagery and energy of the resurgent civil rights movement for my own ends. That’s a reasonable charge and I respond to it, with respect, thus; first, climate change is a social justice issue, since it hurts the disenfranchised first and most deeply, and second, the intersectionality of various issues leads to common and interrelated problems, so why not recognize the solutions as related as well? The fact of the matter is that human beings should be braver and more intellectually honest than they are, whether in light of churches burning in the South or forests and tundra burning to the North. I find the abolitionists inspiring. They rose to the occasion of their lives, and so should we.

Every moment of delay before a real solution is a moment lost.