Yosemite’s Fiery Future

Tim Walton

Photo: Tim Walton

California’s Yosemite National Park has been scarred by several big fires in recent years—the latest contained less than two months ago. But new research affirms that this crown jewel among national parks is likely to have even more fire in its future.

In late August, when fire crews attacked the Big Meadow Fire in Yosemite, it was hard to blame nature for the 74-hundred acres lost. That was a “prescribed burn” that got out of hand (or “escaped,” as the official report puts it). But nine out of ten wildland fires in the Sierra start with a lightning strike. Newly published work suggests that as California’s climate changes, the combination of warmer temperatures, less snow and more lightning strikes could mean 20% more fires by mid-century.

USGS research forester emeritus Jan van Wagtendonk co-authored the study with James Lutz at the University of Washington. He says they studied 20 years of Yosemite fire data to identify a trend. The mechanism starts with the oft-cited warming scenario, causing more rain and less snow at upper elevations.

“What happens in the mountains is that, as snow recedes in the spring the moisture in the fuels follows,” says van Wagtendonk. “The fuel starts drying out earlier and we extend the fire season by having more days available for fires to burn.”

But there’s another wildcard in the deck: lightning. Separate studies suggest that higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide will set the stage for more lightning strikes.

The study assumes a 17% reduction in snowpack by 2050—under the relatively modest B1 warming scenario, drawn from IPCC models. The results are in line with other climate studies that imply not just more fires, but more intense fires as the climate warms. It’s a trend, says van Wagtendonk, that has already started:

“We were able to trace, through satellite imagery, the change that we’ve seen in the severity of those fires just over the past 20 years, so it’s been obvious to us from those data that whatever temperature trends are occurring today are already having an effect on increased severity.”

“We see more of the same,” said the forester, “and a continued increase in both size, number and severity of fires.”

Yosemite fires from 1984-2005. The black triangles are fires sparked by lightning. Image: International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Yosemite fires from 1984-2005. The black triangles indicate fires sparked by lightning. Image: International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Scott Stephens, an associate professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, says lightning is changing the landscape in more ways than one.

Stephens recently told KQED’s Central Valley Bureau Chief, Sasha Khokha: “In Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, they manage quite a few lighting fires in the wilderness area, away from people, and they allow these things to burn for months and months and months to try to allow that lighting fire to begin to shape the landscape again like it did 100 or 200 yrs ago. Those types of events probably increased the resiliency of the forest to deal with climate change and other impacts.”

The article is published in the current issue (10/27) of the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

KQED’s Central Valley Bureau Chief, Sasha Khokha, contributed to this post, as well as to the radio report.

Marketplace Parses Climate Questions

The public radio program Marketplace continues its ambitious series on climate change, later this month. New reports will air November 16-20 as part of “The Climate Race”, a multidimensional look at “how global warming is already affecting us and the tough choices we have to make.” While the geographic scope of the series ranges well beyond California’s borders, it underscores that much of the nation grapples with the same issues that confront us here in the West. The first four reports, aired last week, are worth catching up with online.

Part 1: “Climate Change in Our Own Backyards” is a snapshot of how climate change is already affecting residents of Helena, MT.  Fewer cold snaps have allowed the mountain pine beetle to run rampant, devastating the area’s surrounding pine forests, and leaving a tinderbox of dead trees for miles across the landscape.  Reporters Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner talk to residents about how this reality has changed the way people think about climate change and what challenges lie ahead.

Part 2: “The Planet Will Survive, But Will We?” explores episodes of severe climate change in the Earth’s distant past, and explains what ancient tree stumps can tell us about climate past, present, and future

Part 3: Is There Energy to Slow Climate Change?” focuses on energy and the political, social, technological, and economic challenges we face as we consider moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy supplies.  This report zeroes in on West Virgina and the debate between the coal industry and wind power advocates.  In Part 4;  “How Do We Live With a Warmer Planet?”, Eaton and Gardener look at what lies ahead for business, agriculture, and society, as temperatures continue to rise.

Photographs and audio slide shows related to the radio stories are available on the series web page:  “Futuristic Farming” offers a look at a farm that takes water efficiency to new heights, and “Climate Past” features stunning shots of Mono Lake and an interview with paleoclimatologist and geomorphologist, Scott Stein. The “Climate Race” page also includes links to resources, an interactive map of the United States with statistics about how climate change is affecting regions and what changes are expected by the end of the century, and audio clips from experts on topics such as how climate change is expected to affect health and agriculture.

Climate Watch will be sharing resources with Markeplace to cover the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, next month. KQED’s L.A. Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz will team up with Eaton for coverage of the two-week conference. Schmitz, who recently reported a series of Climate Watch stories from Japan, speaks Chinese and has extensive experience in international reporting.

Where There’s Smoke—And Where Isn’t There?

Earlier this week I got an email from a colleague in Boulder, Colorado, remarking on the crimson sunsets and brown haze that had settled across the Front Range, apparently caused by drifting smoke from California’s wildfires. At that point the Station Fire complex in Los Angeles County had already charred nearly 150,000 acres.

Smoke fans out from L.A. fires this week. Image: NASA

Smoke fans out from L.A. fires this week. Clickable image: NASA

My colleague Dan Brekke, an ardent watcher of elemental stuff like water and fire, featured a map of the spreading haze in his personal blog.

By Wednesday evening Brekke relayed that flames had consumed an area about the size of Chicago (and no, he couldn’t resist the low-hanging Mrs. O’Leary reference). With less than 30% containment, smoke had spread over about three-quarters of the state. Beyond California, NOAA had tracked the plumes “northward and eastward…across southern Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Kansas.”

Front page of Wednesday's Denver Post

Front page of Wednesday's Denver Post

From The Denver Post:

“Joe Ramey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said that a high-pressure system is continuing to pump smoke from several California fires and 17 fires currently burning in Utah into the state. He said a fire near Nucla in south-central Colorado also may be contributing to the haze…Most of the smoke, however, is being generated by the 190-square-mile fire burning near Los Angeles, he said.”

While the current pall is not entirely California-born, it does make the point that large wildfires cast a surprisingly long shadow.

Atmospheric scientists classify smoke as an “aerosol” (any airborne particulate matter), which has a complicated set of feedbacks on the climate. For instance, aerosols encourage cloud formation and clouds have both positive and negative feedback effects on global warming. But it’s clear that smoke plumes generate greenhouse gases and also carry toxic air pollutants such as carbon monoxide.

Briefing journalists last month at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)–in Boulder, no less–atmospheric chemist Gabriele Pfister said that wildfires have multiple effects on the atmosphere. They “disturb the carbon cycle,” interfering with energy exchanges and generating greenhouse gases. Itinerant smoke can generate ozone pollution far from the initial fires. This presents a challenge for local regulation of “ground-level” ozone, since it’s often likely an import from distant fires.

A Climate Reporter’s Candy Store

I’m spending the week in Boulder, CO, attending a series of lectures and discussions at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The center is a hub for climate modeling using some of the world’s most advanced computers–but scientists here are working on a dizzying array of projects, from “wind prospecting” models for siting utility-scale wind farms in Colorado, to tracking the ozone drift from California wildfires, to studying the relationship between weather and meningitis in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With the Flatiron Mountains as a backdrop, architect I. M. Pei used the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings as inspiration for the NCAR headquarters building, in Boulder. Photo: Craig Miller

With the Flatiron Mountains as a backdrop, architect I. M. Pei used the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings as inspiration for the NCAR headquarters building, in Boulder. Photo: Craig Miller

While NCAR works closely with NOAA (which also has a major research center in town), it is not part of it. NCAR is funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by something called the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a consortium of about 75 North American universities, as well as major institutions abroad.

About 400 scientists work under the NCAR umbrella, including Kevin Trenberth, a leading authority on the link between El Nino and global climate. Right before hopping a plane for Australia this week, Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section, reaffirmed what NOAA and others have been saying; that we may be in for a significant El Nino event this fall and winter.

“There are good signs below the surface of the ocean in the tropical Pacific that this is the real deal,” said Trenberth. He echoed some of the optimism expressed by many Californians that the result could be an overdue dousing after three years of accumulating drought conditions. “The odds are, if it’s a good El Nino,” said Trenberth, “that there is more likelihood of a southerly storm track that’ll bring a lot of weather systems into southern California in particular. It’s not always clear what happens in northern California but the odds are that there’s a much more active southern storm track right across the U.S. and in particular in California.”

The IBM Bluefire 76-teraflop computer, centerpiece of NCAR's supercomputing center. Photo: Craig Miller

The IBM Bluefire 76-teraflop computer, centerpiece of NCAR's supercomputing center. Photo: Craig Miller

NCAR scientists continue to refine their climate models, which have been downloaded by more than 10,000 scientists around the world. UCAR invests $20-to-$30 million every four years in it’s Computational & Information Systems Lab (CISL), to maintain it’s state-of-the-art status. CISL chief Rich Loft says it’s probably the most advanced supercomputing center devoted largely to climate analysis.

Even so, NCAR is busy building a bigger, faster one–but not here. The new supercomputer, which may be ready by 2012, will be sited near Cheyenne, Wyoming, mostly to take advantage of the cheap, abundant electric power in that area. Loft and NCAR Director Eric Barron both concede the paradox that the most advanced computer assault on global warming is itself a huge gobbler of electricity, much of which comes from coal-fired power plants. The Wyoming facility will suck down 4.5 megawatts of power. Barron says at least there’s a major wind farm “right next door.”

The center’s carbon footprint is probably also swollen slightly by its own air force. NCAR operates two aircraft packed with advanced instrumentation; a hulking C-130 Hercules and a sleek, high-altitude Gulfstream V. Sadly, no rides were offered this week.

Dancing With the Devil

Sometimes that’s what it feels like, confronting another fire season in California. But last week, network news videographer Tim Walton found himself literally in that position, while covering the Jesusita Fire near Santa Barbara.

Walton spends much of his time chasing the state’s most threatening wildfires, shooting video for outlets like NBC Nightly News.

Santa Barbara "Fire Devil." Photo: Tim Walton

Santa Barbara "Fire Devil." Photo: Tim Walton

On Wednesday (5/6) he was shooting a “fully involved” home, when he was visited by a dangerous and awe-inspiring presence. In an email, he writes:

“I was filming the house when it felt like someone was standing next to me. I panned the camera over and this “fire devil” was spinning around outside the burning house. It came out a window for a few seconds and went right back where it came from in the house (of course “it” is just gases that were sucked out of the burning house by the wind and ignited by the heat).  The vortex stays as long as the wind.

BTW this fire started on the same date as the Summit Fire did last year, I observed the same type of fire behavior we saw early last season. I think we are in for a very interesting year. “

Fire devils are also referred to as “fire tornadoes” or “fire whirls.” Walton’s remarkable collection of photos from California wildfires is posted at his Flickr site. The photo of this “devil” is actually a still frame from some of his HD video:

Girding Against the Fire Season

Firefighters at the Martin Fire in the Santa Cruz mountains near Bonny Doon, CA in June, 2008. Photos by Tim Walton.

Firefighters at the Martin Fire in the Santa Cruz mountains near Bonny Doon, CA in June, 2008. Photos by Tim Walton.

caption caption

Tonight, on KQED Public Television, Quest: California at the Tipping Point explores some of the ways in which climate change will likely affect our state, including an increased risk of wildfire.

Last year, California’s fire season got off to an early and catastrophic start–and this year, generous spring rains could not cover the shortfall from two previous years of scarce precipitation. The late rains might forestall fire conditions for a while but more fires are inevitable.

Last June, more than 1,000 wildfires started in one weekend.  Throughout the course of the season, thousands more fires burned and hundreds of homes were damaged.  But if you’re among those who live in the “urban-wildland interface,” there are steps you can take to lower your home’s vulnerability to wildfire.

In the video clip below, a CalFire official tells Vicki Liviakis, who lost her home in the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, how vegetation around the house can feed a wildfire, and explains how Californians can create landscapes that reduce fire risk.  (You can watch the full 28-minute video, co-hosted by Liviakis and Climate Watch Sr. Editor Craig Miller, on YouTube.)

CalFire maintains this map, which tracks current fire incidents in California.  You can check this throughout the fire season for an overview of the state’s burns.

On tonight’s Quest program, Climate Watch Sr. Editor Craig Miller talks with CalFire’s Chief Deputy Director Crawford Tuttle about the increasing fire risk California faces due to rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.

Below are the latest maps from CalFire depicting California’s regions and communities most at risk.

CalFire's map of statewide fire threat

CalFire's map of statewide fire threat

CalFire's map of California communities at risk

CalFire's map of California communities at risk

Some Surprises in Fire-Climate Connection

Tonight, San Francisco’s KQED Public Television (HD 9) will air the first collaboration between Climate Watch and Quest, its weekly series on science & environmental topics. “California at the Tipping Point” is a half-hour special that explores the likely affects of climate change on the state. One of those anticipated effects is greater risk of wildfire. This post expands on the program with some of the recent science in that arena.

The conventional wisdom is that a warming planet means more wildfires–and in many cases the conventional wisdom is right. But globally it’s a more complex question.

Just last week, Max Moritz and his team at UC Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research & Outreach published a study that shows widely varied fire response to climate changes around the world. Post-doctoral fellow Meg Krawchuk was the lead data cruncher in the effort, with contributions from researchers at Texas Tech University.

What they found were suggestions of rapid changes in fire regimes, and not all in the same direction. Some places (like most of California) will likely see a spike in the fire hazard, while other regions (like the Pacific Northwest) could see a retreat of wildfire frequency and intensity:

“In contrast to any expectation that global warming should necessarily result in more fire, we find that regional increases in fire probabilities may be counter-balanced by decreases at other locations, due to the interplay of temperature and precipitation variables. Despite this net balance, our models predict substantial invasion and retreat of fire across large portions of the globe.”

Moritz has been stumping for new approaches to fire-climate analysis. He says rather than treat fire strictly as the product of other climate change variables, we should think of it also as a climate driver.

Map shows areas of potential fire advance (orange) and reatreat (blue) by 2010-2039 (medium-high emissions scenario)

Map shows areas of potential fire advance (orange) and retreat (blue) by 2010-2039 (medium-high emissions scenario)

You can use the player below to hear an excerpt from my interview with Moritz, in which he explains the new perspective that he thinks his team’s study brings to the fire-climate connection.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Fire and (Less) Ice: California’s Climate Future

firesign_blogThere was little “news” in this week’s report from California’s inter-agency Climate Action Team. The distillation of 37 academic studies mostly affirmed what we’ve been hearing from multiple sources lately; that “severe and costly impacts” likely lie ahead as the state’s climate changes.

The report’s findings are aligned with two of the scenarios modeled by the U.N.’s climate panel; the “B1” outlook for moderate emissions of CO2, and the higher-emissions “A2” scenario. While California has ambitious plans to curb carbon emissions, many recent reports agree that the world is presently on a path toward emissions even higher than the worst IPCC scenario.

Under that more severe tableau, says report co-author Dan Cayan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, the number of wildfires in the state could double by 2085. Cayan said that “by every model,” the state is warming and in some areas, drying. One regional model sees precipitation in Southern California tailing off by 10% in years to come.

There’s more coverage of the report in Jane Kay’s article for the San Francisco Chronicle and Bettina Boxall’s story in the L.A. Times.

The Times article points to some relatively “good” news in the report; a UCLA study that the strength of fire-fanning Santa Ana winds may be subsiding. But there is also research out of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that points to a longer Santa Ana season, so it’s unclear what the net effect might be in the long run.

In a media conference call attended by report authors and state officials, I asked about murmurings that the Western Climate Initiative may be unraveling. Eileen Tutt of Cal-EPA denied that the planned regional cap & trade program for cutting carbon emissions is in trouble. She said that in working with people from California’s six potential partner states, it’s her view that they “aren’t backing off at all.” She admitted that “rumors abound,” however.

Climate Watch has dispatched freelance correspondent Tom Banse to look further into those rumors. He’ll be reporting in from Washington and Oregon in the weeks to come.

Leveraging Disaster: Australia’s Fires and Climate Policy

Environmentalists in Australia are seizing on the recent catastrophic fires there to press for more aggressive action on climate change.

Reuters news service reports that the drought-driven fires, which killed at least 130 people in the nation’s Victoria province, have become a fulcrum in arguments to intensify Australia’s relatively modest targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Here in California, we can only hope that the Australia fires aren’t a preview of the summer ahead. Last year’s fire season set records, with more than 2,000 fires burning at one point. This year, conditions will likely be even drier.

Is the Climate Killing Our Trees?

Aerial_Shasta forestsA new collaborative study suggests that warming temperatures are taking a toll on trees in old-growth forests across the western US.

The study concluded that the near doubling in the mortality rate over several decades transcends forest types, elevation, tree size and species. The study will by published in Science this week.

Phil van Mantgem, who co-led the research team at USGS, said the spike in dying trees could lead to habitat destruction for forest wildlife. And while living trees absorb greenhouse gases, dying trees actually release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, furthering the effects of global warming.

Usually, van Mantgem said, a small number of trees in a forest die each year and are replaced by new growth. However he’s observed that trees are dying so quickly that new growth is having trouble keeping up. He said one of the causes could be the West’s rising average temperature. While it rose only 1 degree (F) during the past few decades, he said it’s been enough to reduce the snowpack and melt the snow earlier, causing longer periods of dry weather and distressing forests.

Warm weather might also nurture insects and diseases that attack trees. Some reports have already tied destructive bark-beetle outbreaks to higher temperatures.

Nate Stephenson, another research team co-leader with the USGS, said the deaths, over time, could reduce the age of the western forests. “Tree death rates are like interest on a bank account – the effects compound over time,” Stephenson said. Stephenson worries that the increasing rate could lead to a bigger and more abrupt change in forests, similar to sudden and extensive die-backs observed in the southwest, Colorado and British Columbia.

Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service, and six universities collaborated on the study. Van Mantgem appeared on KQED’s Forum program today, along with host Dave Iverson, Climate Watch Sr. Editor Craig Miller and Inez Fung, author of a new study on seasons shifting from rising temperatures. Van Mantgem then popped up on NPR’s Science Friday. New York Times correspondent Andrew Revkin, author of the widely followed Dot Earth blog, also appeared and responded to recent polling on attitudes toward climate change.