Author Archives: Climate Central

The New Age of Western Wildfires May Be Here

A review of national fire data suggests that the “typical” wildfire season may need redefining

This post is based on a report produced by Climate Central, a non-profit climate education group.

Climate Central

Screenshot from Climate Central's Interactive Wildfire Tracker. Click on the image to see where wildfires are currently burning.

The 2012 wildfire season isn’t over yet, but already this year is shaping up to be the one of the worst on record in the American West. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, with nearly two months still to go in the fire season, the total area already burned this year is 30% more than in an average year, and fires have consumed more than 8.6 million acres, an area larger than the state of Maryland.

Yet, what defines a “typical” wildfire year in the West is changing. In the past 40 years, rising spring and summer temperatures, along with a shrinking mountain snowpack, have increased the risk of wildfires in most parts of the West.

Studies show that continued climate change is going to make wildfires much more common in the coming decades. Continue reading

Drought Has Ties to La Niña, with Global Warming Assist

La Niña has been linked to historical droughts, including the Dust Bowl

By

Scott Olson/Getty Images

A cow feeds in a drought-damaged pasture as temperatures climb near 100 degrees on July 17, 2012 near Princeton, Indiana.

Driven by a combination of natural climate variability, manmade global warming, and plain old bad luck, drought conditions are so widespread in the U.S. that it’s possible to take a cross-country flight from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco — a distance of approximately 2,400 miles — without once overflying an unaffected area. With about 81 percent of the lower 48 states experiencing at least abnormally dry conditions, and 63 percent mired in moderate-to-exceptional drought, it’s becoming harder and harder to find an oasis. And the dog days of August are yet to come.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) already ranks this drought as one of the worst on record, comparable to the drought events of the 1950s. The last time there were such widespread drought conditions in the corn-growing region of the country was in 1988, and that drought cost at least $40 billion.

Given this summer’s punishing 1-2 punch of dry weather and heat, this drought is also being compared to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Continue reading

Dry Weather Boosts Odds of Extreme Heat

A new study finds that drought in one month increases the likelihood of heat in the next

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Sasha Khokha/KQED

As soil dries, more of the sun’s energy goes into heating the air directly, rather than evaporating moisture from the ground.

Droughts such as the one currently gripping a majority of the U.S. may dramatically increase the odds of extremely hot days, a new study found. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explores a dynamic that is playing out right now across the country, particularly in the Great Plains, where the severe drought is priming the atmosphere in favor of an above-average number of extremely hot days.

This occurs because of feedbacks between the ground and the air: as the soil and vegetation dry, more of the sun’s energy is able to go into heating the air directly, rather than going into evaporating moisture from plants and the soil.

With drought conditions intensifying during mid-summer, the study suggests that the U.S. may be in for particularly brutal Dog Days of August. Continue reading

After Two Years of La Niña, El Niño May Be on the Way

The climate pattern usually causes wetter weather in California

By Andrew Freedman

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

In 2010, a series of strong storms linked to El Niño caused major flooding in Southern California.

If you thought the first six months of the year were chock full of weird weather events, just wait — according to climate scientists there is an increasing likelihood that El Niño conditions will soon develop in the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Niño events, which are characterized by an area of unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, can have a huge influence on global weather patterns. Its effects on the U.S. tend to peak during the winter.

The U.S. has already had a record warm January-to-June period, and has already had two extremely rare heat waves this year, one in March and the other in mid-June to early July. Entering mid-summer, drought conditions are covering 56 percent of the lower 48 states, a record drought extent in the 21st century. Continue reading

Heat Wave Adds to Colorado Wildfire Woes

Record-breaking heat combined with drought create ideal conditions for wildfire

So far this summer, California has been spared from massive wildfires like the ones raging in Colorado. You can keep tabs on fires in California on CalFire’s statewide map.

By Andrew Freedman

U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan/Flickr

The Waldo Canyon fire burns off the southern border of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Blistering and desiccating heat across the West and High Plains helped aggravate an already dangerous wildfire situation in Colorado and several other states, and now the heat is moving eastward toward the Midwest, South Central states, and eventually the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

Denver endured a record fifth straight day of 100-degree temperatures on Tuesday, and the high temperature of 105°F tied the city’s all-time record high, a milestone that reached just a day earlier. Colorado Springs also hit an all-time mark on Tuesday, with a high of 101°F.

At least 23 daily high temperature records were broken or tied in Colorado alone on Tuesday. Continue reading

400 ppm: A Milestone that Means Everything, and Nothing

For the first time in history, the atmosphere’s concentration of CO2 has topped 400 ppm

Commentary by Michael D. Lemonick

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

CO2 levels have been climbing since the Industrial Revolution.

I’m not big on taking note of milestones. They’re artificial, and usually meaningless, but people get all worked up about them anyway. I don’t like to stay up late on New Year’s Eve, for example, because Dec. 31 is a purely arbitrary date. Nothing real actually begins the next day, but we all pretend otherwise. I have similar feelings about the first day of spring, the temperature reaching 100° as opposed to 99° and all sorts of other magic-sounding dates and numbers that don’t have any real significance.

But since no law says I have to be consistent, I’m going to take note of a milestone that happened some time in the past couple of months, and which was reported last week by NOAA. For the first time in recorded history, and almost certainly for much longer than that, the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide, or CO2, has nipped above 400 parts per million in at least one part of the world. Monitoring stations in Alaska, northern Europe, and Asia have all noted readings above that level during this past spring.

In one sense, this isn’t all that important. There’s no meaningful difference between 399 ppm and 400, and the current world average is more like 393. Even in the Arctic, scientists know the CO2 level will drop back below 400 this summer, as trees in the Northern Hemisphere suck carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere (you can see the annual ups and downs as trees start growing in the spring and go into hibernation in the fall). We won’t get to a world average of 400 for several years yet.
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After Dry ‘Rainy Season,’ California Faces High Wildfire Risks

Exceptionally dry conditions this winter have heightened the risk of summer wildfires

By Alyson Kenward

Craig Miller/KQED

Dry conditions in California during most of this winter have left many areas parched and vulnerable to ignition from both human and natural causes.

In California, May typically marks the beginning of a warm and dry summer season. This year, however, things are different. Not only has it been warm and dry for the past couple weeks; it’s been warm and dry for months. So dry, in fact, that officials are warning the risk of wildfires across much of the state is going to be much worse than usual, for several months to come.

According to their most recent outlook, the National Interagency Fire Center predicts that large parts of southern and central California, along with forests throughout the Sierra Nevada, are likely to see more wildfires than normal, particularly later this summer.

“A big chunk of the state is looking at above-average wildfire risk,” said Rob Krohn, a meteorologist with the U.S. Forestry Service’s Predictive Services Branch in Riverside. According to Krohn, the exceptionally dry conditions in California during most of this winter have left many areas parched and vulnerable to ignition from both human and natural causes.
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Climate, Corn, and the Coming Market Chaos

Climate change has an outsize effect on corn price volatility

mhall209/Flickr

Climate change -- and the ensuing heat waves -- will create more volatility in the corn price market.

By Michael D. Lemonick

Farmers know all too well that the prices they get for what they grow can fluctuate from one year to the next, sometimes wildly. Drought or heat can reduce crop yields; so can frost and floods. For corn producers, the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates the addition of ethanol to gasoline, is yet another source of volatility. It puts extra demands on whatever supply there is, making corn more expensive for consumers even as it puts more money in farmers’ pockets. And overlaid on top of it all is climate change, which exerts its on push on the ups and downs of weather.

Scientists have looked at different pieces of this equation, but researchers from Stanford and Purdue have analyzed the entire equation, in a paper just published in Nature Climate Change, and determined which factor causes the most trouble: it’s climate change, and for Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh, that came as a surprise. “I genuinely expected that climate would be a minor player relative to these other influences,” he said in a telephone interview.

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We’re Not Alone: Wimpy Winter Weather Across the Country

Some atmospheric scientists think that could change soon.

By Andrew Freedman

While some may be cheering the lack of snow as welcome relief, the widespread lack of it spells trouble for the ski industry, which pumps billions into the wintertime economy in states from California to Maine, and requires cooperation from Mother Nature to stay in business.

Craig Miller/KQED

Snow from last year's big winter storms could still be seen on the mountains near Lake Tahoe on August 30th. This winter has been one of the driest on record.

Ski area operators across the country are already reporting drops in lift ticket sales, and are hoping for a major change in the weather pattern to bring colder, snowier weather. So far, die-hard skiers have been forced to either ski on man-made snow or travel to one of the few far-flung areas that have benefited from the unusual weather, such as the mountains of New Mexico or Alaska (where one town has had 18 feet of snow).

Compared to last winter, this wimpy winter weather is coming as quite a shock.

Snow was so widespread last winter that at one point in January, every state except Florida had some snow on the ground. But this year, the U.S. had the 11th least extensive December snow cover in the 46-year satellite record, said David Robinson, the director of the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University.

“Is it fair to call it a snow drought? We’re getting there,” Robinson said. “It’s certainly an early season snow drought.”

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The Easy Fix That Isn’t

Touted as a simple way to combat climate change, white roofs may actually increase global warming, according to a new Stanford study. 

NNSA/flickr.

Installing white roofs (or painting them white) has been promoted as a way to help slow global warming. New research shows that white roofs may actually add to global warming.

By Alyson Kenward

If you’re interested in staving off climate change without trying too hard, painting your roof white seems like a complete no-brainer. It’s far cheaper than trading in your SUV for a Prius, and it turns the laws of physics to best advantage. Dark roofs absorb sunlight that heats up your house, office tower, or apartment building. That means you’re bound to crank up the energy-intensive air conditioner to keep pace in the summer months — and since electricity in the U.S. comes largely from fossil fuels, the net result is more heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, and more global warming.
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