FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Wildfires: the Smoking Gun of Western Climate Change?

As cooler temperatures and precipitation finally bring a hint of relief to smoke-weary Montanans, the unusual nature of summer 2017 is coming into focus and the influence of climate change is impossible to ignore.

Extreme weather has no doubt been the dominant story throughout the country this summer as hurricanes and tropical storms have ravaged the southeastern United States and wildfires have wreaked havoc in the West. A simple Google search will yield hundreds of stories about the impacts of these events, but very few mention climate change as a contributing factor. And that’s unfortunate.

Collectively, we have over 65 years of experience studying western climate and forest systems, and we are among the authors of the forthcoming Montana Climate Assessment (MCA), a report that focuses on climate trends and their consequences for three of Montana’s vital sectors: water, forests, and agriculture. The Assessment sheds some light on common questions about climate change and its effects on things like drought and wildfires.

Was this fire season remarkable?

2017 is already a record-breaking wildfire season in some regions of Montana, and the fingerprints of climate are easy to spot. In many ways, what we’ve seen this year is exactly what we’ve come to expect, but in other ways, it’s even more worrisome.

There has been an increase in large fires in the last three decades, and this year will be one of the worst, especially in Montana where wildfires have burned over 1 million acres (www.nifc.gov). The persistence of some of these fires has been unusual, choking western Montana valleys with health-threatening smoke for weeks on end.

What role did climate change play?

Climate has played a big role. While it’s impossible to tie any one weather event or wildfire directly to climate change, what we can say with certainty is this: increases in temperature in the last decades have set the stage for drier conditions and more fires. In a given year, warmer weather and less precipitation dries out fuel loads and creates conditions for rapid fire spread. Fire records dating back decades to millennia show a clear link between warmer temperatures, lower precipitation and an increase in the number of fires and acres burned. This situation is precisely what we expect to see from climate change.

Montana has been on a steady warming trend for decades, up over 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, and all projections are that it will continue. This summer was the second warmest on record since 1950 at 4 degrees Fahrenheit above average, and the persistent high temperatures coupled with the record lowest rainfall in July and August shifted the relatively wet conditions of spring into extreme drought by mid summer. The speed of the transition from wet to dry was so rapid that the term “flash drought” has been coined.

What can we expect in the future?

These extreme weather events weren’t unforeseen and they are not without a systemic cause. As the buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere intensifies, our overall climate and weather patterns will continue to change.

The Montana Climate Assessment goes into great detail about our climate future, and with respect to wildfire, we can expect additional warming with less precipitation in the summer months. Over the next century, extreme heat days (above 90 degrees Fahrenheit) are projected to increase by an additional 5-35 days across the state. And as a result of greater drought, forest fires will likely increase in size, frequency, and possibly severity.

Factors contributing to wildfire are complicated, but we know that they involve both forest management and climate conditions. From 2006-2015, 95 percent of wildfires were suppressed at a cost of $13 billion (See Schoennagel et al., ). This level of expenditure is not sustainable and the burden on state and local resources is enormous. New adaptive approaches are needed to manage forest fuel loads (e.g. thinning and controlled burns), enhance forest health and at the same time reduce wildfire risk and costs. In addition we must also consider policies that will curb greenhouse gas emissions, which are the main driver in climate change.

Together, working from the best available science, we can and must develop plans to increase resilience, mitigate expected impacts and address the known causes of climate change.

The Montana Climate Assessment is a product of the Montana University System’s Montana Institute on Ecosystems, in collaboration with the Montana Climate Office, Montana Water Center and MSU Extension. It provides a thorough look at how Montana’s climate has changed and what we can expect in the coming years. This information is intended to help families and communities plan for and adapt to changing conditions. We invite everyone to consult the report, which will be available after Sept. 20 at www.montanaclimate.org, and join us in local discussions around the state in the coming year.

Cathy Whitlock, professor of earth sciences, director of the MSU Paleoecology Lab, and fellow and former co-director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems at Montana State University.

Kelsey Jencso, associate professor of Watershed Hydrology and director of the Montana Climate Office at the W.A Franke College of Forestry & Conservation, University of Montana.

Nick Silverman, research scientist in the Montana Climate Office and W.A Franke College of Forestry & Conservation at the University of Montana.

This article originally appeared in the Independent Record (Helena, Montana.)

 

January 22, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess
Raouf Halaby
The Little Brett Kavanaughs from Covington Catholic High
Dean Baker
The Trump Tax Cut is Even Worse Than They Say
Stanley L. Cohen
The Brazen Detention of Marzieh Hashemi, America’s Newest Political Prisoner
Karl Grossman
Darth Trump: From Space Force to Star Wars
Haydar Khan
The Double Bind of Human Senescence
Alvaro Huerta
Mr. President, We Don’t Need Your Stinking Wall
Howard Lisnoff
Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali
Nicole Patrice Hill – Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Scarlet “I”: Climate Change, “Invasive” Plants and Our Culture of Domination
Jonah Raskin
Disposal Man Gets His Balls Back
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail