A new study out of UC Riverside projects an increase in rain and snow in California due to climate change, reported Matt Smith on Seeker.com. Anthropogenic impacts on climate are expected to produce a chronic El Niño-like weather pattern off the Pacific coast of the U.S., leading to about 12 percent more rain and snow by 2100.
The study used a newer computer model and relied on other models that have a better record of simulating precipitation and the effects of an El Niño on the state. El Niño, the cyclical warming of the Pacific Ocean near Earth's equator, typically produces warmer temperatures across much of the United States and more rainfall over California.
Meanwhile, an article by Joshua Emerson Smith in the San Diego Union-Tribune presented less-welcome climate change news. It concluded that wildfires are expected to get longer and more intense in California due to climate change.
“We will need some very new approaches to deal with both the increasing hazard of fire and our increasing exposure to it,” said Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in fire ecology and management at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. “The situation we have created is dangerous, and without a major shift in perspective it will only get worse.”
There are ways to limit the ignition of the wildfires. The article said about 95 percent of all wildfires are caused by people, so it's important to be aware of fire-safe practices pertaining to home maintenance, campfires, target shooting, vehicle use and other outdoor activities.
Here are a few examples of fire-safe best practices:
- Mow lawns in the morning before it gets too hot. Never mow when it is windy or extremely dry. Avoid rocks when mowing; metal blades can cause sparks when they hit rocks.
- Don't drive a vehicle on dry grass or brush. Don't allow vehicle brakes to wear thin, as thin brakes can cause sparks. Carry a fire extinguisher in the car.
- Maintain 100 feet of defensible space around homes in fire-prone areas. UC ANR experts recommend a five-foot zone immediately adjacent to the home be completely devoid of plants and anything combustible.
Wildfires used to be rare in the Great Plains, but that is no longer the case. A new study shows the average number of large fires grew from about 33 per year in 1985 to 117 per year in 2014, reported Chris Mooney in the Washington Post.
The study's lead author, Victoria Donovan of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, said the increasing number of wildfires is consistent with climate change and an incursion of more invasive plant species that could be providing fuel.
UC Cooperative Extension specialist Max Moritz said the study's results align with his observations. However, he added that he suspects that they reflect not so much human-caused climate change, but rather, changing human behavior. Humans have been found to be overwhelmingly responsible for lighting U.S. wildfires over the past 20 years, according to research he cited. But these facts should not downplay the importance of dealing with anthropogenic climate change.
"It does highlight the importance of human ignitions and where/how we build our communities on the landscape," Moritz said. "Wildfire is not going away anytime soon. We must learn, as a society, to coexist with wildfire."
Climate change affects the severity of the fire season and the amount and type of vegetation on the land, which are major variables in predicting wildfires. However, humans contribute another set of factors that influence wildfires, including where structures are built, and the frequency and location of ignitions from a variety of sources — everything from cigarettes on the highway, to electrical poles that get blown down in Santa Ana winds. As a result of the near-saturation of the landscape, humans are currently responsible for igniting more than 90 percent of the wildfires in California.
“More and more researchers are arguing that anthropogenic influences are really important [to understanding wildfires],” Moritz said. “By leaving them out we're missing a critical piece of the solution.”
While the U.S. Forest Service spends more than $2.5 billion each year fighting fires, other public agencies are exacerbating the wildfire problem. Public funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, are going into construction in fire-prone districts.
"It's already a huge problem from a public expenditure perspective for the whole country,” Moritz said. “We need to take a magnifying glass to that. Like, ‘Wait a minute, is this OK?' Do we want instead to redirect those funds to concentrate on lower-hazard parts of the landscape?”
He said human systems and landscapes they live on are linked, and the interactions go both ways. Failing to recognize that leads to "an overly simplified view of what the solutions might be. Our perception of the problem and perception of what the solution is [becomes] very limited."
"It's splitting hairs, as scientists often will, to note that we may not know conclusively whether climate change has caused this particular drought and these specific wildfires," wrote Max Moritz, a UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. "As a wildfire scientist, I find it troubling that this nuance became front-page news because it implies more uncertainty about climate change that there really is among experts."
Other writers' comments about the misleading article were also published. Alex Hall of the UCLA Center for Climate Change Solutions said "an analysis of the probability that the current fire season in California would play out as it has, if climate change were not in the picture has not been done." Jonathan Parfrey of Climate Resolve said "The Times really blew it in this piece."
In the conclusion of his letter, Moritz wrote: "In fact, there is relatively strong agreement among fire scientists about links between climate change and wildfire, even if quantitative attribution poses challenges. To raise awareness about climate change and to reduce its long-term impacts, we need our leaders to speak out."
Moritz' 2014 research is titled Large wildfire trends in the western United States, 1984-2011. Warner also referenced an article by Moritz and colleagues published in Ecosphere called Climate change and disruptions to global fire activity.
Warner's infographic features images of and quotes by Richard Minnich, a UC Riverside earth sciences professor.
"They're getting bigger and bigger," Minnich is quoted in large, bold print in front of a blazing fire. "It has to do with the effort to try to eliminate natural processes in a climate where burning is normal."
Americans' resolve to quickly extinguish wildfires began after a devastating fire season in 1910, which burned millions of acres of forest and killed scores of firefighters. Aggressive firefighting efforts since then have changed U.S. forest ecology, providing excess fuel in forests that lead to larger, hotter blazes.
In order to protect people and property while maintaining forest health, American firefighting agencies and UC ANR researchers are seeking to adapt management strategies.
"There's been fire ever since there's been oxygen in the atmosphere," Minnich is quoted in a speech bubble. "It's been going on for a third of a billion years, and it's not as though we're ever going to stop it."