Worried about Wildfires? Climate Change Will Keep ‘em Coming…

July 13, 2015
Jason Funk
Former contributor

Is 2015 shaping up to be a sign of things to come? It’s only a few weeks into summer, but already we’re seeing exceptional weather conditions driving a very active wildfire season. Some of these events are breaking records – but they’re entirely consistent with what we expect to see in a warmer world. Unfortunately, this may be just the beginning.

Let’s start in an unlikely place to think about warming: Alaska. The Alaskan interior experienced a relatively warm and dry winter this year, followed by a rapidly warming spring and summer. This left vast stretches of the boreal forest especially dry – and a recent spate of “dry thunderstorms” has ignited an enormous number of fires.

This fire season has already surpassed the number of fires seen by this time in 2004, which was the worst Alaskan fire season in recent memory. Already, more than 2 million acres have burned, and neighboring Canada is experiencing similar conditions and a record-setting fire season.

Unfortunately, these are exactly the kinds of conditions we expect to become more frequent with climate change. Higher latitudes (near the poles) experience faster warming than lower latitudes (near the Equator), so even a small amount of global warming can translate into much higher temperatures in the far north. Warmer winters mean less snowpack; warmer springs mean earlier melt; warmer summers mean drier forests and soils – the result is a tinderbox. Add in a few lightning storms, and we can witness a conflagration that threatens lives and property.

The scary part is that these fires in the far north are converting vast stores of carbon into even more heat-trapping emissions, adding to the global warming problem. Several years ago, I spent a summer researching the effects of fires in the Alaskan Interior. My colleague, Dr. Merritt Turetsky of the University of Guelph, along with others, has now documented that these northern fires are burning deep into stored peat and contributing to the breakdown of subsurface permafrost, making even more carbon vulnerable. Fire is just one of the pathways that this carbon can end up being emitted to the atmosphere, where it contributes to further warming.

And if you think what happens in the far north can’t affect those of us down here in the lower 48, think again: the smoke plumes from northern fires have traveled through the upper Midwest, down into the Ohio Valley, and along the East Coast to Long Island. That hazy 4th of July sunset wasn’t the result of grills and fireworks – it was due to wildfires blazing throughout Alaska and Canada.

Satellite image of smoke plumes.

Plumes of smoke from wildfires extended across much of the Midwest and eastern states in early July. (Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA)

The situation is just as bad throughout other parts of the West. Washington state is experiencing an anxious fire season, and the fires have sparked already in the unusually dry conditions have moved quickly. In Wenatchee, Washington, several people have lost their homes and businesses. The intensity of the multi-year drought in California has hardly been eased by the below-normal winter precipitation and scant Sierra Nevada snowpack. Now the state is facing the real prospect of running out of water – water for crops, water for drinking, water for fighting the inevitable wildfires. Elsewhere, parts of the Rockies are seeing record heat, and with forests already dying from past climate-related factors, they may be even more vulnerable to wildfire this year.

The Federal government is gearing up as much as possible, training and deploying firefighters and purchasing new equipment. But this may be another year when wildfire costs exceed the expected budget, and federal agencies have to pull money out of other funds to meet the need – including funds that are intended for fire prevention activities. This only leaves forests and nearby communities more vulnerable – and if recent wildfire trends continue, the risk of wildfire will continue to grow as global temperatures rise.

These kinds of reactionary measures can only keep us safe for a short time, until our resources are spent and the threats overwhelm our capacities. The only real solution is to take steps to reduce our own emissions and slow down the rapid pace of warming. Until then, communities from Fairbanks to Wenatchee to Los Angeles will continue to see the risks of wildfire grow, year by year.