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Drought and heatwaves and fires - oh my!

June 17, 2013 - Perhaps no one word describes climate change better than volatile.  There are a number of words like volatile that can help clarify what is meant by climate change: mercurial, fluctuating, and transient all can be applied - at times - to this emerging phenomenon.  As it emerges, it will grow in geographical impact, grow in severity of effects, grow in variety of effects, and grow exponentially as a result of positive feedback.  Last year will always be better than this year.  It will outpace us - our inability to act collectively will result in millions of individual actions.  Most of them will have been poorly thought out.

For now, we must learn to accept that many of our poorly-informed collective actions only serve to compound errors.  Sequestration - a puzzling action at best - has stripped $50 million from the Forest Service's budget, eliminating the jobs of 500 firefighters.  Those still employed will have to make do with 50 fewer fire trucks than originally planned for purchase.  This, at a time when fire season lasts two months longer and destroys twice as much land as it did four decades ago, according to Thomas Tidwell, head of the U.S. Forest Service.  This, at a time when large forest fires occur more often than ever before in the western United States, due to an increase in springtime temperatures, early snow-melt, and hotter, drier summers.  Why are we spending less, when we need to spend far more? 

There is no end in sight.  A 2012 study in Ecosphere, the peer-reviewed journal of the Ecological Society of America, reveals that climate change will alter fire patterns across the globe by the year 2100.  A draft National Climate Assessment report, prepared by over 240 authors, contends "that human influence on the climate has already roughly doubled the probability of extreme heat events like the record-breaking summer of 2011 in Texas and Oklahoma."  Half of the western United States is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years.  Inadequate snow-melt and spring rains this year promise more of the same.  Yet another study links the warming Arctic to drought and heat waves in the U.S.

Some things require little explanation.  Drought accompanied by high temperatures makes trees drier.  Stronger winds and bigger storms create more fallen branches, called slash fuel.  Yes - fallen branches fuel wildfires.  When understory plants create "ladders" up into the forest canopy, fire follows these ladders.  Higher winds occupy the canopy, so fires gain momentum.  A little less obvious is the fact that the wetter weather that warmer, moister air causes leads to rapid tree growth.  When these trees dry out during the next drought, more fuel exists with which to feed fires.  The simultaneous higher temperatures cause fires to burn more fiercely.

If you're thinking about moving west, don't.  The environment has been pushed beyond its fragile limits.



With thanks to Mother Jones and the Guardian (UK).

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