It’s not your imagination. Wildfire seasons are getting worse, and the West is getting drier

Wildfires this summer have stretched government resources to their limits. (Uriah Walker/U.S. Army photo)

One of the great talking points of late has been the severity, or even the existence, of climate change. There was a time, maybe just short of 30 years ago, when the scientific and political consensus were on the same track, agreeing that man-made carbon and methane emissions were changing the climate.

A lot of industry pushback, in the form of like-minded politicians and convincing-looking counternarratives, soon cropped up. Arguments of “job-killing regulations” and no small amount of doubt-sowing opinion pieces, studies and so forth muddied what was at one time a clearer picture. And to be frank, the far-off implications of what might happen didn’t move the meter much in terms of public opinion.

What people needed was evidence. Evidence they could see. And not just data, which for some reason, people just don’t trust as much as what they see with their own eyes. Bad things were coming, we were told. But for most, out of sight means out of mind.

The trouble with this line of thinking is that when you finally see the negative consequences that were predicted all along, it’s likely too late. And that’s what we’ve seen come to pass in the American West.

Two things come to mind, things that are not only measurable, but visible.

The first is the expanding wildfire season, and the growth of its severity.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published these facts on the subject:

Between 1980 and 1989, the American West averaged 140 wildfires of 1,000 acres or larger every year. Between 2000 and 2012, that number nearly doubled, to 250.

The wildfire season has grown in length. In the 1970s, the season lasted about five months. Now it’s up to seven months.

As western states heat up, snowpack is melting four weeks earlier than normal. Hotter, drier forests are becoming more vulnerable to more frequent and more destructive wildfires.

A satellite image of wildfires in California. (NASA image)

The journal Nature confirmed this with its own research, noting that this is a global problem:

“Climate strongly influences global wildfire activity, and recent wildfire surges may signal fire weather-induced pyrogeographic shifts. Here we use three daily global climate data sets and three fire danger indices to develop a simple annual metric of fire weather season length, and map spatio-temporal trends from 1979 to 2013. We show that fire weather seasons have lengthened across 29.6 million km2 (25.3%) of the Earth’s vegetated surface, resulting in an 18.7% increase in global mean fire weather season length. We also show a doubling (108.1% increase) of global burnable area affected by long fire weather seasons (>1.0 σ above the historical mean) and an increased global frequency of long fire weather seasons across 62.4 million km2 (53.4%) during the second half of the study period. If these fire weather changes are coupled with ignition sources and available fuel, they could markedly impact global ecosystems, societies, economies and climate.”

And from NASA, data show that as bad as things are looking in the western U.S., the problem is significantly worse in eastern Brazil, east Africa and western Mexico.

The statistics for 2018 obviously aren’t in yet, but if it seems like the entire West is on fire, you’re not too far off target. Drought in the U.S. Southwest created massive wildfires in Arizona, northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. Wildfires later erupted in Utah and Wyoming. Record-setting blazes are scorching California once again, and massive fires are currently burning in Montana and British Columbia. It’s one of the worst fire seasons I can remember, and my guess is by the time 2018 ends, it could be a record-setter.

Lengthening, more damaging wildfire seasons are one thing. But there’s more. The nature of the arid west is changing, too. It’s growing.

NPR recently reported this:

“The American West appears to be moving east. New research shows the line on the map that divides the North American continent into arid Western regions and humid Eastern regions is shifting, with profound implications for American agriculture.”

A meridian running through the plains of Canada and the U.S. and into Mexico is seen as the diving line between the drier West and the wetter East. Researchers, according to NPR, are discovering that line is moving east, increasing the size of the Rocky Mountain rain shadow and making the breadbasket of the U.S. that much smaller. Farmers are finding it more difficult to successfully irrigate their crops (and the depletion of the Ogallalah Aquifer will only make this harder), so they’re switching to ranching, which is less water-intensive.

The arid climate of the West is edging its way into the wetter, more humid East. And that will affect agriculture and livelihoods for people in the Great Plains.

Right now, it’s difficult to measure the impact of this shift, but you can imagine its potential significance. Production of food and biofuels lies with the success of agriculture in the Great Plains. If that becomes less tenable in places like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the shift will be felt not only by the farmers themselves, but consumers in the U.S. and abroad. The real question becomes one of figuring out how far east that dry/wet dividing line will go.

At one time, people might have wondered what climate change will look like. Well, now we know. It means longer, more intense fire seasons. It means less land for farming, and a fundamental change in the lifestyles of people making a living in the Great Plains.

In other words, some people asked for evidence. Now you can see it for yourself.

Bob Doucette

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The Weekly Stoke: Obstacle course races, Mount Everest news, tragedy on Mount Hood, ice climbing and the future of U.S. groundwater

For the younger set, August is the time when you’re gearing for school. The rest of us have been working anyway. And in between that, well, hopefully you’ve been doing something awesome. Speaking of awesome, you need to check out what I’ve got here for you on this edition of the Weekly Stoke!

This diagram from Outside Online should help you pick which obstacle course race you should do:

Outside Online

Outside Online

Authorities in Nepal, hoping to get a handle on the circus that has become the Everest spring climbing season, intend to regulate the mountain more.

A snowboarder’s body was recovered on Mount Hood.

Here is part satire, part truth, in terms of nutrition product reviews.

This report does not bode well for the future of U.S. groundwater supplies.

And finally, a pretty sweet ice climbing video. Enjoy!

Seen on the run: Is climate change here?

Is this where we're headed?

Is this where we’re headed?

I was out running the other day, hitting some trails and exploring new routes in a part of the park I’d seldom seen before.

The place has all the things I love in trail running – long stretches of single track, technical paths, lots of trees and hills. Down one old jeep trail was some sort of pipeline. Elsewhere, there were signs naming certain parts of the trail system. The top of the hill is a rocky outcrop, the bottom of the ravine a maze of dry creekbeds.

Eventually I come through the thick tangle of trees and brush into an open area. A sign greets me, telling that a small body of water at my feet is “Pepsi Lake.” It’s really just a pond – Turkey Mountain has a few of these. But the misnomer aside, what strikes me is that Pepsi Lake is about two-thirds dried up.

This is one symptom of an ongoing crisis here in Oklahoma – we’re in the third year of an ongoing drought that has given us little rain, record heat and a host of problems related to both.

The situation doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. It’s been an incredibly dry and warm fall, and as I’m running these trails, I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

It’s mid-December.

***

I live in an energy state. Oil, gas and coal have been a big part of the development of Oklahoma, and the boom in shale oil and gas has helped the fossil fuel industry reassert itself as the big dog on the block, economically speaking. It’s boosted the state economy, though there are many (mostly from out of state) who decry big energy’s resurgence.

It’s pretty easy to talk a really big game about being green while enjoying the fruits of fossil fuel energy. As I write this, I’m typing away on a computer that is powered by electricity derived from the burning of coal. Same is true with all the lights that are illuminating my home. The computer is partially made of plastics that are made from refined crude oil. For the run I mentioned above, I traveled to Turkey Mountain in a car made from metals, glass and plastics manufactured in factories powered by gas and coal; the car is itself is powered by gasoline (another refined crude oil product) and travels on roads paved with asphalt (also a refined crude oil product). And all those wonderfully cheap techno-gadgets we all love and crave were made in similar processes overseas, shipped to our shores from halfway around the world on cargo ships powered by diesel fuel.

Everything we love about modern life – travel, ease of movement, readily available foods, communications, automation and just about every other convenience that we take for granted – owes its existence to the extraction, refining and burning of fossil fuels. You might not want to hear that, but it’s true. If not for oil, gas and coal, we’d be living lifestyles akin to what people lived in 18th Century. That’s something to think about when you’re on your iPad ripping into someone whose views are not as green as your own, or when you’re riding your eco-friendly bike made from steel, plastic and rubber forged and otherwise manufactured by way of intense drilling and mining for the old, compressed bones of ancient microorganisms buried deep underground.

But here’s another fact: The earth is getting warmer. And just about any scientist in the know will tell you that we humans are the cause.

Everything has a cost.

***

At this time last year, I was grumbling to myself about not being able to test my cold-weather running gear because of how mild the winter had been. Don’t get me wrong, being able to head outside in the middle of winter and enjoy 60- and 70-degree weather is pretty awesome. I can see why snowbirds from up north eventually retire in the Sunbelt states to the south.

But I was looking ahead. In the winter of 2011, Oklahoma had one really nasty blizzard and cold snap that produced record low temperatures – as cold as -30 degrees F in a town just north of Tulsa.

Not long after that, the state began to warm up and dry out. The following summer registered record heat – like two months straight of 100-degree temperatures and little to no rain. Summer 2011 was brutal, and we were all glad to see it end.

But the following fall and winter were mild and dry, absent of the weather extremes from the year before. I feared that we were in for a repeat performance for the summer of 2012. Turns out, I was right.

I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to getting outside and training, and being a night shift worker, my prime training time is late morning to early afternoon. This past summer I was out running streets and trails in temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees at times. More record heat, and almost no rain.

That pattern has continued this fall and looks to persist this winter. Does that mean I’m in for another brutal summer of training, running up to fall race season?

Big-picture rewind: Who really cares about my training being inconvenienced? The real price for this pattern of heat and drought is a confluence of ruined crops, wildfires and depleted water sources. Ranchers are forced to sell off cattle they can’t feed and water; farm ponds, like Pepsi Lake, are turning into hollow pockets of mud.

Similar stories are being told south of the border in Texas. But go north and you’re hearing it as well in places like Missouri , Iowa and just about everywhere else in the Midwest. It’s so dry, in fact, that state officials and members of Congress are begging the president to authorize the release of more water from reservoirs along the Missouri River. Why? Because the Mississippi River’s water levels are getting so low that commercial barge traffic is close to the point where it can’t reach some ports.

Drought is making Old Man River a puny version of its normal self. But upstream on the Missouri, there isn’t much water left to spare. Blame that on a lack of rain, and also fault the lousy snowpack that accumulated in the Rockies last winter – a lousy snowpack that could be matched in its lack of depth this year as well.

I’m starting to wonder if we’re watching the expedited desertification of the West and Midwest.

***

I can get used to these mild winter temps. Day after day, week after week, I go outside and I’m greeted by bright sunshine. That’s going to happen today, too, when I head out to the trails for more running/exploring.

I’ve also proven to myself that I can handle the heat. No, I can’t run as hard when it’s 110 as I can when it’s 60, but I can still get some work done and do it safely, provided I take the correct precautions.

My pace is slower. There’s a lot more hydration going on. And there’s a mental toughness you have to develop when you step out the door and are greeted by blast furnace heat. I consider it a challenge.

But I have to wonder: If this cycle of heat and drought continues, what will my beloved wooded hills west of town become? All those blackjack oaks and scrub brush are pretty hardy, but if we start heading into Dust Bowl conditions, will they survive? What if we go into Dust Bowl conditions and never get out? It’s probably too soon to think about that. Who knows? Weather patterns change.

But what I do know is this: I’ll be headed out to the trails today, in mid-December, wearing shorts and a T-shirt again. Looking at the forecast, that will be the case for at least the next week.

***

climateraph

It would be one thing if this weather pattern in my part of the world was an isolated event. But it’s not.

Sea levels have risen a foot in the past century. They’re likely to rise more, and a lot faster, if ice sheets in Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic Ocean continue to dissolve at their current rate. That has led to speculation that events like Superstorm Sandy are not just a warning to coastal communities, but a harbinger of things to come. NOAA says 2012 is very likely to be the hottest in the contiguous 48 states on record, following some other, very hot years in the last decade or so. A pattern is under way.

I was a climate change skeptic for a long time. How could a bunch of fuzzy-headed eggheads from the ivory tower world of academia possibly know that what we’re seeing was caused by us?

It now seems they’re on to something. NASA agrees. They’ve got a thorough rundown of the evidence that the accelerated warming of the planet’s seas and skies is tied to the increased production of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere.

So what to do? Go green? Develop alternative energy? What does that look like, in terms of practical application?

Do we have to relegate ourselves to scaling back our economy? Accept sky-high energy prices that are the norm in Europe? Given how deeply every aspect of our lives is in the fossil fuel economy, is it even possible?

Smarter people than me will have to answer those questions. Changing national and global habits is hard.

One thing I know for sure is that the world is changing. It’s not just because some scientist or activist told me so. I can see it with my own eyes when I go run.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088