California's new normal: How the climate crisis is fueling wildfires and changing life in the Golden State

It's the new way of life in the Golden State.More than a dozen...

Posted: Oct 30, 2019 9:10 AM
Updated: Oct 30, 2019 12:00 PM

It's the new way of life in the Golden State.

More than a dozen wildfires displace hundreds of thousands of Californians.

Nearly 30 million people from California to Arizona wake up to red-flag warnings that signal conditions ripe for fire danger.

Utilities throw entire communities into darkness in hopes of reducing the risks. More than 94,000 acres have already burned. Vast forests of dead trees have become tinderboxes.

'This is only the beginning,' former California Gov. Jerry Brown told Politico this week. 'This is only a taste of the horror and terror that will occur in decades.'

But it's happening now.

Here's why deadlier and more destructive wildfires have become the new normal -- and it's all related to climate change:

It's getting hotter and hotter

Hotter temperatures mean drier land. A parched atmosphere. It's that simple.

In California, for instance, warm-season days have increased by 2.5 degrees since the early 1970s, according to a recent study published in the journal Earth's Future.

'The clearest link between California wildfire and anthropogenic climate change thus far has been via warming-driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire,' the report said.

'It is well established that warming promotes wildfire throughout the western US, particularly in forested regions, by enhancing atmospheric moisture demand and reducing summer soil moisture as snowpack declines.'

Park Williams, the study's lead author and a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said human-caused warming of the planet has caused the vapor pressure deficit (VPD) to increase by 10% since the late 1800s, meaning that more evaporation is occurring. By 2060, he expects that effect to double.

'This is important because we have already seen a large change in California wildfire activity from the first 10%. Increasing the evaporation has exponential effects on wildfires, so the next 10% increase is likely to have even more potent effects,' he told CNN in July.

VPD -- which measures dryness, or aridity, near the Earth's surface -- is directly related to the rate at which water is transferred from the land surface to the atmosphere.

In the Southwest, average temperatures have increased by 1.6 degrees F since the early 1900s, according to the 2017 Climate Science Special Report by the US Global Change Research program.

Earlier spring snowmelts

The California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, or CalFire, called climate change 'a key driver' of the trend of longer fire seasons.

'Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire,' CalFire said in its 2019 fire season outlook.

In fact, fires are causing snow to melt earlier in the season across the western US in a cycle that triggers more fires, according to a paper published in May in the journal Nature Communications.

Drier conditions everywhere

Climate change has created conditions conducive to fueling the fires -- such as drier air and plant life.

In the fall, many California fires occur in coastal shrub lands and are driven by extreme wind events, such as the Santa Ana and Diablo winds.

These strong offshore winds have very low humidity, which quickly dry vegetation on the ground and spread wildfires when they occur before the onset of winter precipitation.

'Wind increases the supply of oxygen which results in the fire burning more rapidly,' Cal Fire spokeswoman Mary Eldridge said. 'It also removes the surface fuel moisture which increases the drying of fuel.'

The fire season turns into the 'fire year'

What California officials once referred to as the 'fire season' is now becoming the 'fire year.'

'While wildfires are a natural part of California's landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year,' according to Cal Fire.

'The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state.'

Additionally, the risk of blazes grows as the fire season expands from the long, dry summer into the fall months-- with intense Santa Ana and Diablo wind events increasing the ability for rapid and dangerous spread.

Outbreaks of pests weaken and kill trees

Disastrous drought conditions have converted forests into tinderboxes, leaving behind an apocalyptic landscape of dead trees -- in the millions -- and inviting bark-eating pests such as the Mountain Pine Beetle.

'Bark beetle infestations killed 7% of Western US forest area from 1979 to 2012, driven by winter warming due to climate change and by drought,' according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a US government report.

The ravenous beetles feed off nutrients found in bark, along the way releasing pheromones that attract swarms of fellow insects, according to experts. When enough beetles lay their eggs, reproducing in even greater masses, the trees become deprived of necessary nutrients.

Climate change has contributed to the forest pest infestations, the report said -- a major cause of tree death in Southwest forests and woodlands.

Burn areas grow with climate change

The increased size of wildfires occurring across California in the last 50 years is attributable to climate change, according to the recent study published in Earth's Future.

Since the early 1970s, California wildfires have increased in size eightfold, the study said. The annual burned area has grown by nearly 500%.

'Increases in state-wide burned area over the last several decades were dramatically punctuated in 2017 and 2018 by particularly extreme wildfire activity with substantial loss of life and property,' said Williams, the study's lead author.

In 2017, almost 1.25 million acres were burned in California. That year, the Tubbs fire alone destroyed more structures than any previous wildfire in state history.

One year later, the Mendocino Complex fire consumed 459,000 acres, making it the state's largest wildfire in acreage. The cause of that fire is still under investigation.

'In these two years, the state spent over $1.5 billion, more than any previous two year period,' the study said.

Cal Fire said 13 of the 20 largest fires occurred during the summer. All but one happened in the last five decades.

The World Meteorological Organization reported last year that the size of fires is growing.

'The northern part of the world is warming faster than the planet as a whole,' the report said. 'That heat is drying out forests and making them more susceptible to burn.'

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 501097

Reported Deaths: 9990
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34338538
DeSoto32117403
Hinds31939628
Jackson24494382
Rankin21995390
Lee15543235
Madison14581280
Jones13851242
Forrest13453251
Lauderdale11991317
Lowndes11050188
Lamar10521135
Pearl River9533237
Lafayette8550140
Hancock7732127
Washington7438158
Oktibbeha7146131
Monroe6777177
Warren6694176
Pontotoc6664102
Neshoba6637206
Panola6531131
Marshall6467134
Bolivar6317148
Union602894
Pike5820152
Alcorn5669101
Lincoln5436135
George496879
Scott472898
Tippah469281
Prentiss467281
Leflore4658144
Itawamba4636105
Tate4588111
Adams4587119
Copiah448592
Simpson4446116
Yazoo444187
Wayne439772
Covington428894
Sunflower4239105
Marion4226108
Coahoma4160105
Leake408288
Newton381779
Grenada3707108
Stone360364
Tishomingo359792
Attala331589
Jasper329965
Winston314291
Clay308076
Chickasaw300367
Clarke292494
Calhoun279446
Holmes267987
Smith264050
Yalobusha234047
Tallahatchie228051
Greene219348
Walthall218763
Lawrence212940
Perry205556
Amite205156
Webster202946
Noxubee186740
Montgomery179656
Jefferson Davis171743
Carroll169138
Tunica159839
Benton148838
Kemper141941
Choctaw133426
Claiborne132737
Humphreys129538
Franklin120228
Quitman106428
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94534
Sharkey64120
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 819597

Reported Deaths: 15406
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1147901924
Mobile725791338
Madison52306697
Shelby37597350
Baldwin37245552
Tuscaloosa35101612
Montgomery34106740
Lee23526246
Calhoun22225488
Morgan20941378
Etowah19825500
Marshall18361304
Houston17384412
St. Clair16054339
Cullman15443293
Limestone15343199
Elmore15241286
Lauderdale14302295
Talladega13836283
DeKalb12649261
Walker11202370
Blount10192176
Autauga10043148
Jackson9871184
Coffee9210191
Dale8897185
Colbert8860201
Tallapoosa7084198
Escambia6772134
Covington6712183
Chilton6641162
Russell636659
Franklin5959105
Chambers5607142
Marion5005127
Dallas4973200
Pike4795106
Clarke475584
Geneva4571127
Winston4516103
Lawrence4321117
Bibb425186
Barbour357776
Marengo338090
Monroe331464
Randolph329764
Butler326396
Pickens316284
Henry312666
Hale311388
Cherokee302860
Fayette292880
Washington251551
Cleburne247760
Crenshaw245275
Clay243368
Macon234663
Lamar224147
Conecuh186153
Coosa180240
Lowndes175164
Wilcox168839
Bullock151644
Perry138840
Sumter133038
Greene126744
Choctaw88527
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Clear cool and dry to begin your weekend, but both afternoons should be a little bit above what we expect for this time of year temperature wise. Rain chances begin to return late Sunday night, with at least two chances for storms over the next week, summer could be strong.
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