Climate fires have tipped us into a new era – the age of embers.
Yale Environment 360 notes “just as global warming has propelled the Arctic Ocean past a tipping point which will lead to a largely ice-free Arctic in summer in the coming decades. Wildfire scientists say that rising global temperatures and worsening droughts mean that the world has entered a new era of mega-fires.”
California is burning yet again. This fact should be the top story today and every day. But it can't because of the monsters occupying the White House and their endless distractions and scandals.
Ed Struzik tells the story of the 1988 wildfires in Yellowstone National Park. Fire managers allowed the fire to burn but, it quickly got out of hand, and the plan to protect the park by allowing the fire to spread and burn the dry timber and undergrowth backfired. The temperatures that year in Yellowstone broke heat records, drought, and unrelenting winds caused a third of the park acres to burn. Fires have become larger and are a problem the world over.
To paraphrase California Governor Newsome, the hots keep getting hotter, the drys keep getting dryer, and fires keep getting bigger and more intense.
What’s less clear is what the future “firsts” will look like when the number of fires is expected to double and possibly triple this century in places where tens of millions of people live in or along wildlands.
Wildfire scientists agree that the planet will experience more pyroCbs and fire tornadoes, and more large, destructive fires burning in places where fire has not been a frequent visitor.
Many experts no longer think that Scandinavia and the east coast of North America will be spared because it is expected to be wetter there in the future. Sweden needed outside help to deal with record fires in 2018. The Pinelands of New Jersey may get a lot rain, but 10 days of blue skies, high temperatures, and gusty winds can nevertheless create prime fire conditions. People who live in the Pinelands know this all too well based on the region’s prolific fire history.
The new fire era the world is now entering means that the old ways of fighting wildfires will no longer suffice to suppress blazes that are growing more numerous, burning hotter, and consuming ever-larger areas of homes and woodlands. More money is certainly needed to put more firefighters on the ground and in the air. Thinning forests and grasslands and burning them lightly may well be part of the answer. But firefighters also need new and improved tools such as unmanned aircraft for surveillance, fire risk maps, real time warnings, smoke projections from active wildfires, and computer models that predict where fires might start.
The Atlantic provides an analogy between a mega-fire and boiling ravioli.
To understand the ravenous wildfire season in the American West this year, boil some ravioli. Put the heat on high. After about 10 minutes, the pasta will go limp and start to break apart. Keep boiling. When the pot holds a shallow puddle of water and a pile of soggy debris, keep going. Don’t turn down the heat until the last bubbles of water sizzle and vanish. Then—and only then—the lump of ravioli will start to singe and burn and smoke.
Water, when heated, “wants” to evaporate; it will turn to gas before allowing most solids suspended in it to heat beyond the boiling point. This principle, readily observable in the kitchen, has recently doomed forests stretching from California to Washington State. One of the hottest, driest summers on record has led to a barrage of “megafires” that have killed at least 35 people, burned nearly 5 million acres, and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings.
The expansive forests of the West, in other words, spent months boiling off. Now they are burning.
Matthew Green of Reuters writes that Fierce, frequent, climate-fueled wildfires may decimate forests worldwide.
We are now in a situation where even international cooperation — nations sharing wildfire suppression resources — is not enough. This is not the “new normal,” as California Governor Gavin Newsom and others have described it. There is nothing “normal” about the new fire paradigm that is setting in. Decision-makers and the public continue to believe that if agencies put enough water bombers in the air and men and women on the ground, fires can be suppressed before they cause widespread destruction. But the best that firefighters can do when a megafire burns in hot, dry, windy conditions is to slow it down or steer it in another direction.
Several decades ago, a government policy of letting fires burn out naturally — which was initially followed in the 1988 Yellowstone Park fire — seemed like a good idea. Since then, “letting it burn” has posed far greater risks. And as population and development increases, it has become increasingly difficult to allow fire to burn because there are now too many people living and working in places that are vulnerable to fire. Witness the evacuations of tens of thousands of people in California, Oregon, and Washington this summer.
Climate change has made these landscape-changing wildfires a concern worldwide. This year, record fires have also raged in Australia, Argentina and the Siberian Arctic. The fires in these regions have also been exacerbated by heat and drought conditions made worse by climate change, scientists say.
“What we're seeing with fires in California and elsewhere around the world is that fire is really responsive to climate change,” said Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder.
That is bad news for temperate and boreal forests, which unlike tropical forests such as the Amazon have evolved over millennia to need occasional fire outbreaks for their own renewal, scientists say. Whether these woodlands can survive more intense wildfire scenarios will depend on two key issues – how frequently the fires come, and how hot they burn.
Even more worrying, scientists say, is an apparent increase in wildfires in the Siberian Arctic, which can thaw permafrost and release climate-warming methane from the frozen land.
Satellite observations over the last two decades revealed frequent burnings in Siberia’s boreal forest, which might have required a fire only once every 80 to 200 years to regenerate. That increase could be evidence of a fire regime change, said Thomas Smith, a geographer at the London School of Economics.
“It's very difficult for ecosystems to adapt to that pace of change,” Smith said. “It's going to be catastrophic in terms of the loss of carbon when you move from forest to non-forest, and that's part of this positive feedback cycle.”