Does it feel like the world’s on fire? Climate change is partly to blame
Wildfires have been in the headlines across both California and Colorado in recent weeks. So far, the fires have forced the San Juan National Forest to close for the first time in history, driven thousands to evacuate, and destroyed over 20 structures.
The West has barely had a chance to catch its breath since its last wildfire season. California’s largest wildfire on record, the Thomas Fire, ignited just seven months ago, in early December. Yes, for Ventura County residents the winter holidays were a frightening, fiery affair. And in October, wildfires devastated communities across Northern California’s wine country, displacing 100,000 people and damaging 5,500 homes. And not long before that — well, you get the idea.
This firestorm of activity can’t all be a horrible coincidence — so what’s going on?
According to the science, climate change is increasing wildfire risk by influencing the variables that start and fuel fires. Let us explain:
On a hot day, a small spark can ignite a raging wildfire. Unfortunately, as global warming shifts average temperatures up, extreme heat is becoming more frequent over the Western US.
Drier landscapes make it easier for fires to start and spread. And when it’s hotter outside, the landscape is drier. Plants lose more water through tiny pores in their leaves, lakes and streams shrink, and the ground becomes bone dry. Landscapes are also drier because snowpack is shrinking — leading to lower stream flows down to lower elevations in the spring and early summer.
Longer fire season
Hotter temperatures throughout the year expand fire season. From 1980 to 2010, the length of the fire season grew by 2.5 months.
In meteorology, “blocks” are large-scale weather patterns in the atmosphere that are nearly stationary, effectively “blocking” westerly winds and the normal eastward progression of weather systems. Blocking events in the western US are causing unusually prolonged hot and dry periods, and evidence suggests they may be linked to climate change.
So there you have it. By tinkering with the factors above (and more — see “pine beetles”), climate change is loading the dice in favor of larger, more frequent wildfires in the American West. Now it’s up to humanity to save lives here and abroad by taking climate action.