For many, if not the majority of us here in the Pacific Northwest, it seems like we’ve been in some type of post-apocalyptic wasteland since August.
Smoke and ash from wildfires all over Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon have blanketed the Northwest, and we aren’t the only ones who are dealing with record-setting wildfire seasons. California, Colorado, and British Columbia Canada have experienced awful wildfire seasons this summer, and I know I’m leaving plenty of other places off the list.
Here in Pullman – eastern Washington – we started getting smoke from fires off and on in August, when western Montana was already socked in with smoke from wildfires. While here in Pullman and Moscow we had a small reprieve from the smoke near the end of August, folks in western Montana have grown accustomed to the smoke hanging in the air, and the constant smell of fires raging in the surrounding mountain ranges.
Over the past week the smoke had us locked down here on the Palouse as well, with smoke from wildfires in western Montana, northern Idaho, northeast Washington, western Washington, as well as central and western Oregon settling in on us.
About a week ago a friend of mine who lives in the Portland-Vancouver area sent me a snap of ash billowing up from the pavement as he stomped the ground, most of that ash coming from the nearby monster of a wildfire in the Columbia River Gorge that came dangerously close to swallowing up the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, and burned thousands of acres on either side of the Columbia River. That fire was started by senseless teenagers playing with fireworks.
Photos and video near the Bridge of the Gods showed what looked like hell itself swallowing up the Gorge and the magnificent forests blanketing the mountains. Fire raged among the trees and the hills, and day turned to night as the smoke blocked out the daylight.
In Montana, over one million acres have now burned through the Rockies, representing an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. It is the third-worst fire season on record for Montana.
In Canada, British Columbia has experienced even more devastation, with 2.86 million acres now having burned, the largest area ever recorded in the province.
Further south, down the west coast in Los Angeles, the largest brushfire in L.A. County’s history has been bearing down on Burbank, where hundreds of homes are now at risk of being lost.
While wildfires are the concern for those of us in the west, let’s not forget about the horrific hurricanes hitting the east coast and the Caribbean this summer. Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 out of 5 hurricane, was the largest hurricane to make United States landfall since 2005, and the largest to hit Texas since 1970, killing at least 70 and causing devastating flooding.
Now, Hurricane Irma, which killed 23 people on its tour of the Caribbean as a category 5 behemoth has luckily been downgraded and lost strength as it hit Florida. However, it nearly destroyed several islands in the Caribbean on its way to Florida. Irma’s wind speeds were recorded at an average of 185 miles per hour over the Atlantic, the second fastest hurricane wind speeds in our recorded history.
On the surface, it seems as if weather patterns are growing more extreme. Not only in reference to this year’s wildfires and hurricanes, or last year’s brutal winter in the Northwest (or other brutal winters in the Midwest in recent years), but over the past decade-plus. Now, obviously, I am only 25 years old and thus have a microscopically small personal sample size of weather behavior to choose from. And for precisely that reason, I refer to history and the scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying our world’s climate on whether my assumptions on weather behavior hold any weight.
As I dug into this topic and started doing some research, it seems as if my feelings do have some validity.
As it concerns hurricanes, it appears that warming oceans have a great effect on the strength and growth of ocean storms. Scientists point out that while Hurricanes Harvey and Irma would be big storms regardless of the drastic warming trends the ocean has seen over the past 75 years, those warming trends are causing storms to grow bigger, stronger, and wetter. This is due to the fact that oceans and atmosphere are warmer than they have been in past years, and heat is the fuel that supercharges storms and hurricanes.
According to researchers, the Atlantic Ocean goes through normal cycles of warming and cooling that have nothing to do with climate change, such as in response to the El Nino and La Nina weather cycles. However, neither cycle is active this year, and this year’s hurricane season was predicted by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be above average, which makes this year’s quite active hurricane season out of the ordinary.
While there is not enough evidence to imply climate change was the driving factor behind strengthening Hurricane Irma, what’s more telling is hurricane trends and frequency. Frequency that has been on the rise in both the Atlantic and the Pacific in recent years.
According to climate scientist Kevin Trenberth “Previous very active (hurricane) years were 2005 and 2010,” he says, and along with 2017, they experienced warm Atlantic Ocean temperatures. “So this sets the stage. So the overall trend is global warming from human activities.”
This implies that while there is no proven link that storms are growing stronger due to climate change (although logic dictates that this is a distinct possibility), climate change could play a much larger role in the frequency of storms in the future. In the case of Hurricane Harvey as well as Irma, superstorms have always happened due to natural causes, “but the underlying conditions in the oceans and atmosphere have primed the pump. You don’t need much effort now to turn a trickle into a gusher.”
In the west, while we had a quite wet winter with a good snow pack in the Rockies and Cascades, it’s this summer’s heat wave that has done the real damage. Setting heat records in areas like Spokane, Washington and Medford, Oregon, have created prime wildfire conditions. Not only have heat waves dried out the forests, but summer drought has played a monumental role as well, as cities such as Seattle, Washington and Missoula, Montana set records for the longest number of days without measurable rain.
“The last 60 to 90 days have been exceptionally warm and dry, the perfect recipe for drying out fuels (the one ingredient besides ignitions you need for fire in these systems),” said John Abatzoglou, a professor of geography at the University of Idaho.* Fuels obviously being the trees, grass, and brush that make up the habitat. Ignitors being either lightning, or humans sparking fires either by mistake or arson.
The extreme heat waves can obviously play a huge role in the likelihood of wildfires starting and their ability to keep burning and spreading. Not only that, but wildfire researchers have proven that there is an exponential relationship as it relates to fire and aridity, which is controlled by heat. In other words, every degree of warming does more to cause and fuel fire than the previous degree of warming, creating an increasing exponential relationship with each extra degree of heat.
And here comes the global warming plug: According to Abatzoglou in a paper he and Park Williams from Columbia University published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the total area burned in the western United States over the past 33 years was double the size it would have been without any human-caused warming.
“Now, thinking about temperature trends due to human-caused climate change, we think that the western United States is 1.5 [degrees] Celsius, or 3 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than it would be in absence of climate change. And there’s a heat wave on top of that,” said Williams. “Because of the exponential influence of temperature, that means that this heat wave is having a way worse influence on fire than it would in absence of human-caused warming.”
Hotter summers are not the only problem we face in the west as it concerns wildfires.
Not only do we as humans accelerate, exacerbate, and extend the fire season by starting fires through irresponsible camp fire tending, fireworks, cigarettes and cigars not being properly extinguished, or arson, but many researchers claim fire management strategies play a part as well.
In the early 20th century state and federal governments began aggressively fighting wildfires and trying to keep them as small as possible. According to researchers, this has caused denser forests that can spread much quicker and grow into massive and uncontrollable fires instead of quickly burning out.
Williams estimated that it would take several more decades for the excess fuel that has grown in the past century to burn out of American forests. Over these next several decades, the planet only stands to get hotter on a global level, according to climate models, “According to climate models, by the end of this century, the western United States is still projected to warm by about another 3.5 degrees Celsius,” he told me. “And when we remember that the relationship between temperature and fire is exponential … we’re really talking about a very different western United States in 50 years.”
This is but one effect global warming is having on our world. We are seeing it with our own eyes and smelling it with our own noses. And, when nearly the entire scientific community (depending on the study, anywhere from 91%-100% of scientists agree that humans have played a large role in the accelerated heating of our planet) agrees that human-caused global warming is very real, and the effects could be catastrophic, it pains me to see that there is still a raging debate, propagated by certain interest groups such as the Koch brothers and others in fossil fuel industries in particular, as to whether global warming is actually effecting our world.
While many countries around the world, including much of our own country, are working toward renewable energy industries (that could be even more successful and profitable for American workers and middle to lower class families than industries such as coal and oil) that will slow and hopefully repair some of the effects we as humans have had on the environment, others are taking steps backward, such as the United States announcing that we would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement.
This is obviously where politics enter the playing field, and in my mind, this shouldn’t be a Republican versus Democrat or liberal versus conservative debate. This is of course what media sources have made it into, but that’s not what it should be about. This debate, plain and simple, is about money. This debate is good for corporations that rely on environment-ravaging industries, and benefit off of the two sides of the political fence throwing barbs and fighting each other.
The facts are there, and those facts are overwhelmingly indicative that we need to make changes on a large scale level in order to try and extend the habitable life of our planet for future generations.
As a dear lover of the outdoors, particularly the beautiful Pacific Northwest, it scares me to think of what our beautiful forests may look like 50 years from now, or what our air quality or clean water and food supply could look like 100 years from now, and I sincerely hope we can collectively make changes now that will make the world a better place to live in the future.
With that, I want to thank the firefighters out in the mountains right now putting their lives on the line to save homes, historical sites, and habitats. And my thoughts go out to those on the Atlantic coast who have been effected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.
And in the west, bring on the rain! We miss it dearly, and so do our mountains and forests.