Global Warming Wildfire Hell in Western United States

September 2020 has given us a glimpse of the future for the American West, and it is a bleak hell of catastrophic heat, drought and fire.

Fire map

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Fire maps show the entire western US coast is ablaze and fires have spread across Washington state and western Idaho. There are fires in 12 states (and that’s just in the west!) and also Alaska. 4.7 million acres of land have burned, including over a million in Oregon where the Oregon Emergency Management has said that 500,000 people have been told to leave their homes. In some regions, people have been told to leave because the air pollution is so hazardous. Smoke has rendered the air at the top worst range for health for almost all the US west coast. Even in the Vancouver region of Canada, air pollution from US fires is literally off the charts (worse than 10+, which used to be the worst possible level). 

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One thousand fires have raged in California since August 15th, many sparked by lightning strikes, which is increased by global warming. Devastated neighbourhoods are levelled to a flat grey landscape burned to ashes, looking like they have been bombed. People have been terrified by the fires, one witness saying he’s never been more afraid. Another said it feels like Armageddon — and that people should connect the dots and start to fear global climate change. 

The United States is in a most dire global warming emergency, but this is being denied and ignored. Few reports make the obvious global warming link and I have not found one media report that mentions fossil fuels or the imperative of rapid decline of industrial global CO2 emissions (or any decline).

Greenhouse gas emissions (mainly CO2 from burning fossil fuels) are burning up the western US — and emitting more greenhouse gases as they burn. This will unavoidably get far worse. It is a pivotal climate change moment for America and the world. Will this latest monumental climate catastrophe arouse America to emergency climate action? Or will fossil-fuelled business as usual be allowed to carry on? If the latter, the future is being written off by ignorance, negligence and the most cruel complacency. 

For years, the science has been united that global fossil fuel emissions have to decline rapidly from 2020 at the very latest to reach near zero, meaning a rapid end to fossil fuel energy. Since the 2018 IPCC 1.5ºC Special Report, the climate emergency has been widely acknowledged, and yet the end of the fossil fuel era is never mentioned in the political or public domains. For the western United States, this will continue to get far worse fast, so we must drop our industrial CO2 emissions to zero in five years, and not permit building in the most fire prone regions. If this sounds extreme, consider the following evidence.

The world is being heated up fast by fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Driving the heat, drought and fires is the fact that global surface warming is accelerating, faster than ever over the past ten years. The northern hemisphere summer of 2019 was the hottest ever. July 2020 was the hottest July ever for the northern hemisphere. In August 2020, the temperature increase of the entire US Southwest was exceptionally high (Copernicus European Commission) resulting in record temperatures in California and Arizona. 

August 2020 was an August temperature record for California. What could be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth — 130ºF (54.4ºC) — was reached in Death Valley National Park, California on August 17th.  A dramatic firenado was seen in Lassen County in northeastern California, like an omen of the unprecedented fires to come.

On September 6th, Los Angeles County posted a record high temperature of 121ºF (49.4ºC). On the same day, more than 10 San Francisco Bay Area cities smashed records, with record-high monthly temperatures of over 110ºF (43.3ºC). 

This year, unprecedented fires in the Arctic, and now across the western US, are emitting record quantities of carbon dioxide, which is a long-feared amplifying feedback to global warming. In other words, unmitigated global warming itself makes global warming worse.

A forest fire is the perfect example of an amplifying feedback. A still-lit cigarette butt can lead to a large forest fire by amplifying the feedbacks of heat and air currents. These days, these intense forest fires have trees exploding and fire plumes shooting up to ignite the forest canopy. These totally out of human control huge forest fires are a warning analogy to runaway global heating.

As of September 12th, 2020, so far 97 large fires have burned 4.7 million acres the western states. Evacuation orders are in place for 40 large fires in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Idaho and Utah. Wildfires are also burning in Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona and Texas. This is a global warming catastrophe of epic proportion. The weather forecast indicates this will persist. Conditions will continue to be critically dry across the inland Pacific Northwest, western Great Basin, and southern California, and critical temperatures will continue to trend upward across the western United States (National Interagency Fire Center).

Like so many of today’s climate change impacts, increasing western US forest fires have been long predicted due to global surface warming, but they are happening with much greater intensity and range and much earlier than expected.

NASA says that climate and fire scientists have long anticipated that fires in the US West would grow larger, more intense, and more dangerous, but this is worse than they ever imagined. A July 2019 study (A. Park Williams et al) revealed that during 1972-2018, California experienced a fivefold increase in annual burned area, mainly due to more than an eightfold increase in summer forest-fire extent. Since the early 1970s, warm-season days warmed by approximately 1.4°C (2.5ºF), a huge increase driven by global surface warming. 

Indeed, this has been predicted and recorded over the past 20 years. The IPCC 2014 5th Assessment on North America recorded the increases in wildfire activity, including fire season length and area burned by wildfires in the western US and the association of drought with these fires. The 2007 4th Assessment recorded accelerating wildfires, with the area burned in wildfires increased dramatically over the last three decades. In particular, the 4th Assessment said the forested area burned in the western US from 1987 to 2003 is 6.7 times the area burned from 1970 to 1986. The IPCC 2001 3rd Assessment on North America had predicted the forest fire season was likely to lengthen, and the area subject to high fire danger was likely to increase significantly.

NASA has a map of the California in early September 2020 when an intense heatwave broke temperature records in Southern California. It explained the recently published research that shows that these extremes fit a long-term trend toward longer and more intense heatwaves in that region. The map shows air temperatures across the US on September 6, 2020, when much of the Southwest roasted in a dramatic heatwave with temperatures surpassing 113°F (45°C).

The heatwaves and wildfires are being driven by a global warming of +1.2ºC (2.16ºF) (2019). The 1.2ºC of global warming does not tell us much as the number seems so small. We need to know what this means in terms of western US land temperature, but the assessments do not provide this. The burning question is Why such huge explosive fires in the western United States? The immediate answer is that nothing is being done to bring down fossil fuel CO2 emissions, climate change denial persists in the US, and the American public are soft on climate change. In a Harris Poll conducted December 2019, American adults said climate change was the number one issue facing society, but the poll repeated in July 2020 has climate second to last on a list of a dozen concerns, ahead of only overpopulation.

The public does not know the science of the greatest human threat ever, in any depth, and it is poorly communicated. What does 1.2ºC mean to Americans, who think in Fahrenheit? How can we make temperature increase clear even for degrees F? The answer is to give it as  a percentage increase over the normal pre-industrial global temperature, but the science does not provide that. We also need the land temperature increase where we live. We do have the data to allow the percentage increase to be given for global land, northern hemisphere land, and regionally.

The normal pre-industrial temperature of the planet was about 13.7ºC (56.6ºF). With a global average of 15ºC (59ºF) now, that’s a 10% increase. Under global warming, the land surface warms faster than the sea surface, and is now 1.6ºC (2.88ºF) hotter (2019, NASA GISS), and the northern hemisphere land is warming faster than the global land average. At 1.6ºC, by my rough reckoning, global land has warmed by over 13% and the US by at least 15%, which is huge. According to the US 2017 National Climate Change Assessment on US temperature, “the largest changes were in the western United States.” Increasing extreme heat, drought and fires will be damaging to livestock and crop yields. The 2017 National Assessment said that wildfires are expected to disrupt the US’s agricultural productivity, with both livestock health affected and crop yields and quality declining.

And on top of that, there is extreme heat and drying of the forests. The 2017 US National Assessment reported “a slight increase in the intensity of heat waves nationwide as well as an increase in the concurrence of droughts and heat waves.” Starting in April 2020, to the end of August, the US Drought Monitor reported that every state from the Great Plains to the West Coast had some drought, with most being severe or extreme. Today the severity of the drought affecting regions west of Texas has worsened, with most of the drought-affected regions in extreme drought.

These current heat and drought maps show that all of the western US is in a climate catastrophe emergency situation. 

Worse still, this is the latest clear sign that the western US is headed for megadrought. At the end of 2020, the National Science Foundation headlined research “Climate-driven megadrought is emerging in western US, study finds.” With the western United States and northern Mexico suffering an ever-lengthening string of dry years, scientists have been warning that climate change may be pushing the region toward an extreme, long-term drought worse than any in recorded history. A new study says the time has arrived: a megadrought as bad as or worse than any detected since prehistoric times is very likely in progress, and a warming climate is playing a key role. 

These US climate change impacts will continue to get worse, even with a five-year CO2 emissions drop to zero. Plus, there is still accelerating methane and nitrous oxide atmospheric concentrations to deal with. With US decision makers pushing for more fossil fuels — not the end of fossil fuels — vast regions of western and central America are being written off.

The only climate change plan there is, in the US and the world, is to ignore the emergency, and just do more research. That means the western US is condemned to accelerating catastrophic heat waves, drought and fires. It will be hellish — and that’s evil.

With no immediate US and global climate emergency response, there will be hell to pay for America, just like the most vulnerable regions of the world are paying now. 

These fires are stoked by today’s accelerating global surface warming and will rapidly get very much worse. Repeat: These fires in the western US will keep returning, and the burning will get much, much worse. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Today’s fires in the western US are an air pollution public health emergency to a vast region. Smoke now covers southern British Columbia. The city of Vancouver, BC is barely visible and now has air pollution amongst the worst in the world. People have been killed by the fires and many will die from the smokey, choking air pollution.

The only adaptation to these massive, unavoidable, extreme climate catastrophes is for people to move to climate-change-safer locations and no more (sub)urban development in the fire-prone regions. For Nature and wildlife in the path of the fires, most are being burned alive and their homes destroyed. It is a holocaust of the animals, which is another reason for us to insist that global CO2 emissions be zeroed in five years.   

Policymakers have claimed for decades that due to its wealth and technology, the United States would be much less vulnerable to global climate change than other countries. This has ignored extreme weather events, including wildfires. The recent US climate change impacts of record extreme heat, record drought and record wildfires has proved this to be optimistic nonsense. The California fires started three weeks ago. Since September 12th, more than 29,000 firefighters and support personnel with air support have been fighting a losing battle against wildfires across the West. This is yet more evidence that our governments and industry should be aiming to drop emissions close to zero in five years.

Finally, to add the greatest insult to injury, the US media noted the bizarre situation that yet again “climate change [is] largely missing from presidential election campaign as fires rage” (Associated Press September 10th, 2020). This is infuriating to those of us who have warned, from the science, of this cataclysm over so many years, and it should be an infuriating situation to all Americans. At the very least, Americans must force climate change to be the top issue in the upcoming election, which will not be easy. Indeed, it seems that forcing climate change to become the top debate issue will take massive Extinction Rebellion-type demonstrations.

Click here to read the NY Times article on US global warming caused migrations.

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  • Neil Frandsen
    commented 2020-12-10 21:35:17 -0800
    Nevertheless, the forests in California have Not been thinned, nor has the understory, the Fire Ladder, been properly’raked’.
    A secondary problem has been a simple lack of proper Zoning, to require dwellings in the chaparral areas to use fire resistant walls and roofs, plus fire resistant outside shutters on all windows and doors so radiant heat cannot ignite furnishings. Every dwelling also needs high volume sprinklers permanently rooftop mounted,
    Oh, and the Climate Change can go plus or minus. Four hundred years ago there was ice on the river Thames, past London, England. Seems there were few, or no sunspots then.
    Sunspot count is low nowadays, eh?
  • Julie Johnston
    commented 2020-10-31 14:58:33 -0700
    In response to the first commenter, it seems for some people it’s only ever about one thing. What about systems theory? What about interrelationships? What about the fact that the majority of forests in California are “managed” (or not) by the feds (California “owns” only 3% of its forests)? What about the combination of climate change impacts (drought and disease) that has left a lot of dead trees standing? What about a society that always views forest fire as bad, even though First Peoples in North America for millennia used controlled burns to thin out flammable vegetation? Rising temperatures and resulting climate disruption are certainly having an impact on forests along the west coast of the US.
  • Neil Frandsen
    commented 2020-09-15 18:46:43 -0700
    Folks, those California forest fires are burning in forests which have not been managed to modern forestry standards.
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