Thursday, July 26, 2012

UPDATE: Drought and wildfires: the new normal?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 26, 2012 at 11:01 AM

There's no good news in the U.S. Drought Monitor's latest report, which, released this morning, includes data through Tuesday, July 24. Check out this new map of national drought conditions below:

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.
  • The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.

While the overall area of the country experiencing any level of drought conditions stayed largely the same, many regions' extant droughts intensified, with the total area in "extreme" drought — the second-most severe category used in the study — moving from 11.32 percent to 17.2 percent of the country. Meanwhile, 55 percent of the nation’s pasture and rangeland is reported as in "poor to very poor condition".

Our neck of the woods has it even worse. From the report:

Over 80 percent of the topsoil was rated short or very short of moisture in New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Three-fourths (75 percent) or more of the pasture and rangeland was classified as poor or very poor in California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado.

That's notwithstanding the thus-far infrequent monsoon showers we've experienced. And the forecast isn't looking up. “Conditions are likely to persist,” said U.S. Drought Monitor climatologist Brian Fuchs in a press release. “We’ll see further development and intensification into the fall.”

Meanwhile, the media back-and-forth over whether or not climate change is a factor in this year's drought and extreme wildfires shows no sign of abating. Monday, the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters for America jumped on claims made by Americans for Prosperity deputy state director and Colorado Springs resident Sean Paige in an op-ed in Sunday's Denver Post.

In that op-ed, titled, "Do you think climate change is partly to blame for the fires in the West this summer? No," Paige evoked the current drought as a "natural" "climate fluctuation," and called climate change "the ultimate all-purpose excuse." For the wildfires, he laid blame instead on pine bark beetles — and something he called an "analysis paralysis" caused by "professional green extremists." He then pointed to the controversial Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, which he said had been "gutted" of its policies to reduce wildfires. Much of the controversy surrounding that law centered on issues of private logging companies' access to U.S. National Forests, and the logging of medium and large trees versus solely removing ultra-flammable undergrowth.

Media Matters, however, objected to the Post's exclusion of the fact that Paige's organization, Americans for Prosperity, was founded and bankrolled by David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch, better known as the notorious Koch Brothers. Their company, Koch Industries, is heavily invested in carbon-based fuels, something that Media Matters argued suggests the Kochs would "benefit financially from convincing the public that our consumption of fossil fuels is a harmless indulgence with no ill effects."

The Denver Post simultaneously published another op-ed, Do you think climate change is partly to blame for the fires in the West this summer? Yes," by children's author and astronomer Jeffrey Bennett, which, as its name suggests, argues the opposite position to Paige's. Check out that article and the original post below for more on the discussion of drought, wildfires and climate change.


—————ORIGINAL POST, WEDNESDAY, JULY 25, 11:34 A.M.—————

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.
  • The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.

Last week, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's National Drought Mitigation Center released a map that showed 53 percent of the United States experiencing drought conditions, on a scale from moderate through "exceptional." Take out Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and it's 63 percent for the contiguous 48 states. And for almost half (42 percent) of that area, the drought is classified as at least severe. Most of Colorado, according to the map, is in worse-yet "extreme" drought.

80 percent of the area in the 48 states are — at least — "abnormally dry." A total of 1,297 1,369 counties in 29 31 states have been declared federal disaster areas as a result of the drought. That's more than a third of all counties in the United States of America.

As a result, things don't bode well for global food prices.

One thing about climate change is unequivocal: that hindsight is 20/20, that the present is a slippery, knotty thing — that history doesn't reveal itself until after the fact. There's a growing certainty, however, that this summer is going to be remembered as the one when the collective consciousness started thinking of global warming not as "ominous-thing-that-I-can-sort-of-abstractly-imagine-happening-in-some-distant-apocalyptic-future," but as "oh-shit-it's-actually-happening-and-now-it's-one-of-those-things-we-have-to-deal-with."

William deBuys's new, meticulously researched article on Salon.com does plenty to further that narrative. deBuys connects a lot of dots and arrives at the conclusion that the drought in Colorado is, as he says, "the new normal in the American West."

More ominous yet, he connects the persistent drought to this summer's slew of wildfires:


[B]ig fires are four times more common than they used to be; the biggest fires are six-and-a-half times larger than the monster fires of yesteryear; and owing to a warmer climate, fires are erupting earlier in the spring and subsiding later in the fall. Nowadays, the fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago.

All of this is hair-raisingly true. Or at least it was, until things got worse. After all, those figures don’t come from this summer’s fire disasters but from a study published in 2006 that compared then-recent fires, including the record-setting blazes of the early 2000s, with what now seem the good old days of 1970 to 1986. The data-gathering in the report, however, only ran through 2003. Since then, the western drought has intensified, and virtually every one of those recent records — for fire size, damage, and cost of suppression — has since been surpassed.

The fires are so big, and the drought so persistent, that the future augurs poorly for entire forest ecosystems, according to the article. And receding forests means less carbon sequestration, and thus more global warming:

Contrary to the claims of climate deniers, the prevailing models scientists use to predict change are conservative. They fail to capture many of the feedback loops that are likely to intensify the dynamics of change.

Climate change could be destroying forest ecosystems--and making them more vulnerable to wildfires
  • Kathy Conarro
  • Climate change could be destroying forest ecosystems — and making them more vulnerable to wildfires.
For example, forests in the American West — like the one that burned in Waldo Canyon — account for some 20 to 40 percent of the total of carbon sequestration in the U.S., according to an article published in the leading journal Science. If we lose 50 percent of those forests, as University of Arizona fire expert Tom Swetnam says could happen by mid-century, we could see a 10 to 20 percent decrease in the amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that U.S. ecosystems can remove from the atmosphere, which could exacerbate climate change.

To be sure, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated elsewhere that they have only “medium confidence” that climate change has altered current global drought patterns, according to a comprehensive summary in the Washington Post. Climate deniers can't get too cocky, though — even the IPCC report acknowledges that climate change is indeed occurring, and that we can indeed expect much more severe drought conditions in the next 30 years, worldwide. The bulk of scientific data certainly seems to refute some of the more pedestrian, casual dismissals of the long-term significance of the drought that have been popping up elsewhere in the media.

And even that aforementioned "medium confidence" (hardly grounds for skepticism) seems to be on the more conservative end of the spectrum. According to the Salon article, the scientific community's verdict ranges from a standoffish “if climate change is occurring, these are the impacts we would expect to see,” to scary factoids like this:

No such equivocation attends a Goddard Institute for Space Studies appraisal of the heat wave that assaulted Texas, Oklahoma, and northeastern Mexico last summer. Their report represents a sea change in high-level climate studies in that they boldly assert a causal link between specific weather events and global warming. The Texas heat wave, like a similar one in Russia the previous year, was so hot that its probability of occurring under “normal” conditions (defined as those prevailing from 1951 to 1980) was approximately 0.13%. It wasn’t a 100-year heat wave or even a 500-year one; it was so colossally improbable that only changes in the underlying climate could explain it.

Check out the full article for a lot more equally damning data.

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