Winter is not normally thought of as wildfire season. We normally think of wildfires occurring in summer or early fall after hot temperatures and lack of rain make many parts of the the western US a tinderbox. Yet, inexplicably, wildfires are raging outside Golden Colorado, the headquarters of Coors Beer, and a city about five miles from where I grew up in a western suburb of Denver. Wildfires. In March.
Three wildfires fueled by tinder-dry vegetation and fanned by high winds forced the evacuation of 320 homes in the foothills west of Denver on Monday, fire officials said.
The largest blaze, the Indian Gulch fire, has blackened 700 acres and his threatening 750 homes, Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, told Reuters.
I lived in Colorado from 1963 until 1988. I remember late Spring snowstorms in the mountains which would extend the ski season. I remember years where snow melted early cutting short ski season. I do not recall winter or spring wildfires growing up. Yet apparently, in the Western United States, winter wildfires are becoming more frequent. Here is some information from NOAA’s website regarding the wildfires in February of this year:
February is not typically considered part of the U.S. wildfire season, with fire activity typically being low during the month. However, dry and warm conditions across the southern and southeastern U.S., particularly the second half of the month, were associated with an early start to the 2011 wildfire season. […] The 8,226 new wildfires that occurred during February 2011, marked the highest February wildfire count on record, and the 187,021 acres (75,685 hectares) was the second most February acreage burned, behind February 2008 when 214,183 acres (86,677 hectares) burned. […]
According to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), at the end of February, the nationwide number of fires year-to-date was 9,752, which burned 204,373 acres (82,707 hectares), with an average of 21.0 acres (8.5 hectares) per fire. This marks the largest number of fires for the year-to-date period and the fourth largest acreage burned since records began in 2000.
Unfortunately, official national statistics on wildfires only go back to the year 2000, unlike official temperature data, for which we have records going back over a hundred years. We do know the earth and North America has warmed significantly since 1850, with each decade since the 70’s being the hottest on record. Since our data on wildfires is so limited it is is difficult to say whether this trend of winter and early spring wildfires is related to climate change.
However, increased risk of wildfires is consistent with climate change models that predict increased drought, water shortages, and desertification in the Western United States. We know that less ice in the Arctic is a contributing factor to droughts in the Western United States as the Arctic ice cap has shrunk much faster than predicted in earlier climate models. From a San Diego news report in 2007, I found this information:
Three years ago, computer forecast models predicted that in 2050, the reduced ice mass would cause climate shifts that would result in a drought in the western United States.
But the ice is melting far faster than climatologists thought it would.
So much ice has disappeared that the Arctic today looks much like what scientists thought it would in 2050. It’s as if the atmosphere hit the fast-forward button.
The predicted climate changes also may have arrived, with much of the West in the midst of the kind of severe drought that geoscientist Jacob Sewall had envisioned for 2050.
Sea ice extent averaged over the month of February 2011 was 14.36 million square kilometers (5.54 million square miles). This was a tie with the previous record low for the month, set in 2005. February ice extent remained below normal in both the Atlantic and Pacific sectors, particularly in the Labrador Sea and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. […]
February 2011 tied February 2005 for the lowest ice extent for the month in the satellite record. Including 2011, the February trend is now at -3.0 percent per decade.
Here’s a graph that shows the decline in Arctic ice volume from 1980 to 2010:
Here’s a link to a graph that shows the decline in Arctic ice coverage in the winter months from 1979-2011, and the summary by NSIDC scientists of what they have observed.
While ice extent has declined less in winter months than in summer, the downward winter trend is clear. The 1979 to 2000 average is 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles). From 1979 through 2003, the February extent averaged 15.60 million square kilometers (6.02 million square miles). Every year since 2004 has had a mean February extent below 15 million square kilometers (5.79 million square miles).
Are the Colorado wildfires, and the increase in winter wildfires in the United States in 2011, directly linked to climate change, particularly the decline of sea ice in the Arctic as a result of warming temperatures there over the last several decades? I cannot say that the decline is Arctic sea ice is directly causing the increase in wildfires this year.
What I can say is that the increased drought conditions we are seeing now in the Western United States as a result of a decrease in Arctic ice were originally predicted by climate models to occur in 2050. We now know that loss of summer and winter sea ice is occurring much more rapidly than those models predicted. The earlier climate models, in short, were too conservative regarding their predictions.
However, those models did predict a decline in sea ice, and also predicted that sea ice decline would lead to increased drought conditions and desertification in the American West. We also know that drought conditions lead to an increased risk of wildfires, even in winter months. And we know that this year there have been a record number of winter wildfires, tying 2005.
Dick Cheney famously stated that when it came to the threats to our country the 1% doctrine should apply:
Suskind describes the Cheney doctrine as follows: “Even if there’s just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty.
I think we can safely say global climate change on a scale that was unimaginable only a few short decades ago has a much more likely probability of occurring than one percent, don’t you? We have already seen the occurrence many of the extreme events that climate scientists predicted: severe storms, severe floods, severe droughts, increased wildfires, dramatic declines in sea ice in the Arctic, hotter summers, the loss of species, the effects on agriculture worldwide (e.g., the decline of the Columbian coffee harvest due changing climactic conditions), and so on and so forth.
Yet our governments do not act, and our media does not inform the public of the very real risk we are taking by not addressing the climate change crisis. Governments (especially in the US of A) refuse to take the advice of their own scientists. They ignore the very events to which we have all borne witness, or they simply (in the case of Republicans) simply flat out deny climate change is occurring, even those, such as John McCain, who once acknowledged that global warming was real and was primarily caused by human activity.
We are bombing Libya today to “preserve human life.” Our military forces occupy Iraq and continue to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of the “unimaginable risks” they allegedly posed, risks we now know were confabulated, exaggerated or outright lies.
Yet, we in America do nothing with respect to an “unimaginable risk” for which we have reams of data and evidence. Republicans propose to cut funding for the EPA and for the promotion of alternative, carbon free alternative clean sources of energy. Meanwhile our world is burning, both figuratively and literally.
If a 1% risk of terrorist attacks justifies trillions of dollars of wasted defense spending (spending our Congress will not cut) why do we ignore a threat to our nation and our world that has been shown to be significantly higher. Insurance companies take global climate change seriously as a threat to their business. The Pentagon planners take climate change seriously as a national security risk. Yet our media and our politicians do not, whether out of ignorance or cowardice or greed. They squabble and fight and deny and act like fools in a lifeboat that is sinking.
There is a famous line in the film Lawrence of Arabia in which Peter O’Toole as Lawrence states that:
[S]o long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel …
Today, I think he would say that line about Americans. Meanwhile, in the Colorado mountains just outside Denver, mountains I no doubt once climbed and where I no doubt once hiked as a child, wild fires burn in March.