There is a very popular image on the internet that features a dog sitting in a room that is burning around him. Despite his precarious situation, he sips his cup of coffee and says “This is fine”.
In most cases of wildfire or forest fire, this is, indeed, fine. Fire is an important and natural element of a forest ecosystem that helps to regulate overgrowth. However, the fires that have been occurring in the western United States are far from fine. In fact, they are a look in to what Earth’s new normal will be if fossil fuel emissions are left unchecked. Of course, it is nearly impossible to attribute an event specifically to climate change. Forest fires are often ignited by a lightning strike, which is a weather phenomenon. Nonetheless, observed and predicted changes in Earth’s climate have and will continue to create prime conditions for out-of-control fires that devastate people’s lives.
One of the factors in these prime conditions is increased air temperatures. Think of your garden in the summer. You probably have to go outside and water your plants more frequently in the summer than in the spring. This is because of increased evapotranspiration – the process in which water leaves plants through holes in the plant’s leaves, called stomata. Plants open their stomata to take in carbon dioxide from the air, but water also escapes the plant through these holes. The warmer the air around the plant, the more water escapes the plant through evaporation – just like how a glass of water stays more full in a cold room than outside on a summer day. Higher temperatures lead to more evaporation in the glass of water and in a plant. More evaporation means that plants are drier – which is why your garden needs more frequent watering in the summer. Drier plants are better fuel for a fire. You wouldn’t use wet logs to create a bonfire, would you?
Another climatic factor in wildfire formation is shifting snowmelt. A major source of water in the western United States is melting snow coming from the tops of mountains. Observations have shown that snow is melting earlier than in previous decades, which extends the fire season. Additionally, warmer temperatures mean that often times, less snow accumulates on mountain snow caps. Less water coming later means that plants are drier for a longer period of time, which gives fires the potential to be more powerful and widespread. Their fuel is stronger and around for longer.
The wildfires that we have been seeing in our country and others are devastating. Unfortunately, they are a preview of what the “new normal” on our planet will look like if we continue to burn fossil fuels unchecked.
Fortunately, our world is shifting towards higher usage of renewable energy technologies. One way you can be part of this is to contact your power company and arrange to have part or all of your energy be provided by renewable sources such as wind turbines or solar panels, depending on your area. Click on the link below for more information about how to use more renewable energy!
©2018 Meteorologist Margaret Orr
For more information on climate change, visit www.globalweatherclimatecenter.com/climate
Some information from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/heres-what-we-know-about-wildfires-and-climate-change/
Wildfire image from https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/04/wildfires-are-making-california-home-insurance-unaffordable/