Not Just Polar Bears. This is What Climate Change Looks like.

August 9, 2018

Polar bears are somewhat overexposed.

This is what climate change looks like.

New footage from CBC above. Below,  2017 footage.

Below, satellite view of smoke extending over USA.


Below, 2014 footage, -pretty amazing. BBC with smoke jumpers.


As of July 31, more than 25,000 firefighters are committed to 140 wildfires across the United States—over a million acres aflame. Eight people are dead in California, tens of thousands evacuated, smoke and pyroclastic clouds are visible from space. And all any fire scientist knows for sure is, it only gets worse from here. How much worse? Where? For whom? Experience can’t tell them. The scientists actually are uncertain.

Scientists who help policymakers plan for the future used to make an assumption. They called it stationarity, and the idea was that the extremes of environmental systems—rainfall, river levels, hurricane strength, wildfire damage—obeyed prior constraints. The past was prologue. Climate change has turned that assumption to ash. The fires burning across the western United States (and in Europe) prove that “stationarity is dead,” as a team of researchers (controversially) wrote in the journal Science a decade ago. They were talking about water; now it’s true for fire.

“We can no longer use the observed past as a guide. There’s no stable system that generates a measurable probability of events to use the past record to plan for the future,” says LeRoy Westerling, a management professor who studies wildfires at UC Merced. “Now we have to use physics and complex interactions to project how things could change.”

Wildfires were always part of a complex system. Climate change—carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases raising the overall temperature of the planet—added to the complexity. The implications of that will play out for millennia. “On top of that is interaction between the climate system, the ecosystem, and how we manage our land use,” Westerling says. “That intersection is very complex, and even more difficult to predict. When I say there’s no new normal, I mean it. The climate will be changing with probably an accelerating pace for the rest of the lives of everyone who is alive today.”

That’s not to say there’s nothing more to learn or do. To the contrary, more data on fire behavior will help researchers build models of what might happen. They’ll look at how best to handle “fuel management,” or the removal of flammable plant matter desiccated by climate change-powered heat waves and drought. More research will help with how to build less flammable buildings, and to identify places where buildings maybe shouldn’t be in the first place. Of course, that all presumes policymakers will listen and act. They haven’t yet. “People talk about ‘resilience,’ they talk about ‘hardening,’” Westerling says. “But we’ve been talking about climate change and risks like wildfire for decades now and haven’t made a whole lot of headway outside of the scientific and management communities.”

It’s true. At least two decades ago—perhaps as long as a century—fire researchers were warning that increasing atmospheric CO2 would mean bigger wildfires. History confirmed at least the latter hypothesis; using data like fire scars and tree ring sizes, researchers have shown that before Europeans came to North America, fires were relatively frequent but relatively small, and indigenous people like the Pueblo used lots of wood for fuel and small-diameter trees for construction. When the Spaniards arrived, spreading disease and forcing people out of their villages, the population crashed by perhaps as much as 90 percent and the forests went back to their natural fire pattern—less frequent, low intensity, and widespread. By the late 19th century, the land changed to livestock grazing and its users had no tolerance for fire at all.

“So in the late 20th and early 21st century, with these hot droughts, fires are ripping now with a severity and ferocity that’s unprecedented,” says Tom Swetnam, a dendrochronologist who did a lot of that tree-ring work. A fire in the Jemez Mountains Swetnam studies burned 40,000 acres in 12 hours, a “horizontal roll vortex fire” that had two wind-driven counter-rotating vortices of flame. “That thing left a canopy hole with no trees over 30,000 acres. A giant hole with no trees,” he says. “There’s no archaeological evidence of that happening in at least 500 years.”

Swetnam actually lives in a fire-prone landscape in New Mexico—right in the proverbial wildland-urban interface, as he says. He knows it’s more dangerous than ever. “It’s sad. It’s worrying. Many of us have been predicting that we were going to see these kinds of events if the temperature continued to rise,” Swetnam says. “We’re seeing our scariest predictions coming true.”

Fire researchers have been hollering about the potential consequences for fires of climate change combined with land use for at least as long as hurricane and flood researchers have been doing the same. It hasn’t kept people from building houses on the Houston floodplain and constructing poorly-planned levees along the Mississippi, and it hasn’t kept people from building houses up next to forest and letting undergrowth and small trees clump together—all while temperatures rise.


5 Responses to “Not Just Polar Bears. This is What Climate Change Looks like.”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Are we having smoked polar bear tonight?

  2. stephengn1 Says:

    Uninsurable world coming

  3. […] climate will be inhospitable to human life, and could arrive surprisingly quickly, within decades. We’ve already experienced the first waves of instability, as we watch wildfires, droughts, and the parade of other previously predicted […]

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