Last year, Colorado suffered from a record-breaking wildfire season: More than 4,000 fires resulted in six deaths, the destruction of 648 buildings, and a half a billion dollars in property damage. Still reeling, Coloradans are once again fleeing in their thousands from a string of drought-fueled fires.
So what role is climate change playing in the worsening wildfires? Here's what we've learned:
Is climate change making wildfires worse?
Big wildfires like Colorado's thrive in dry air, low humidity, and high winds; climate change is going to make those conditions more frequent over the next century. We know because it's already happening: A University of Arizona report from 2006 found that large forest fires have occurred more often in the Western United States since the mid-1980s as spring temperatures increased, snow melted earlier, and summers got hotter, leaving more and drier fuels for fires to devour.
Thomas Tidwell, the head of the United States Forest Service, told a Senate committee on energy and natural resources recently that the fire season now lasts two months longer and destroys twice as much land as it did four decades ago. Fires now, he said, burn the same amount of land faster.
Hellish wildfires are ravaging parts of Colorado. Thousands of people have been evacuated and at least 360 homes have been destroyed by the Black Forest Fire, currently burning northeast of Colorado Springs. It's just one of many blazes being battled by firefighters in the state and across the West.
Some may like it hot, but the good folks of Louisville, Ky., will tell you that it’s not always a good thing. Cursed with often stagnant wind conditions, a dense urban center, and fewer trees than Paul Bunyan’s backyard, Louisville has seen temperatures rise 1.67 degrees F every decade since 1961. If the pattern holds, by the year 2112, we’ll be able to cook lentils in the average tumbler of bourbon.
And what’s worse than one urban heat island? (You’re going to kick yourself when you see the answer.) Two urban heat islands!
Last week, I told the story of how my family's house burned down in a 1977 wildfire -- and about watching a fire burn on the hill above it, threatening to torch it a second time. Today, I was really glad to have the opportunity to speak about living in wildfire country on NPR's Talk of the Nation.
It was especially great to hear from folks around the country, mainly the Western bits, who are also living with wildfires -- and the reality that they are burning hotter, faster, and farther than ever, thanks in part to human-caused climate change.
We may have a good deal of disaster fatigue out here, but I think we're under no delusion of safety. As much of the Western half of the country suffers through a drought heading into another hot summer, we're essentially all watching the fire on the hill now, hoping it doesn't dart down into our canyon, but knowing that it very may well.
On the plus side, it sounds like those fire-preventing, dry-brush-chomping goats are working great in some places!
Evidence of climate change is all around us, manifesting in superstorms, wildfires, and melting ice. But temperature spikes recorded by weather stations over the past 15 years have been more muted than was previously the case, and lower than climate models had predicted.
That’s leading many people to wonder: Is global warming less of a threat than we had feared?
Climate scientists have been noting for years that the atmosphere is heating up less quickly than expected. Since last year, a growing number have been suggesting that we adjust our warming projections downward. Just last week, 17 scientists called for exactly that in a letter published in the journal Nature Geoscience; they wrote that their latest projections for rising temperatures remain “in agreement with earlier estimates, within the limits of uncertainty," but at the lower end of that range.
When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest 60 years ago Wednesday, the mountaineers gazed over a view from the top of the world that had never been seen before.
The view has changed since that historic day. Pollution and rising mountain temperatures are relentlessly shearing away at the Himalayas’ frozen facade. Photographs taken around the time of the 1953 expedition show hulking ridges of ice that have since shrunk or disappeared.
Glaciers and snow are melting throughout the sprawling mountain range, which stretches across India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibetan China. The waning glaciers are leaving precarious mountainside lakes of cyan blue water in their wake.
So much of the ice has disappeared that climbers following in Hillary and Norgay's footsteps this spring climbing season, including two octogenarians, are encountering rockier cliff faces that are less stable than the ice that was scaled by the mountain’s first conquerors.
“There is a big change compared to when I first climbed,” says Apa Sherpa, 53, a retired Nepalese mountain guide who scaled Mount Everest a record-setting 21 times from 1990 until 2011. He has lived in Utah since 2006 but still visits Nepal every spring or fall, where he participates in treks and climate campaigns.
He says the landscape changes can be clearly seen from the summit of Everest, which by most measures is the tallest mountain in the world. “It used to be more snow and ice, but now it’s more rock,” Sherpa said. “It’s very dangerous for climbing.”
Temperature increases are greatest in the Himalayas’ higher altitudes, but the most visible changes are occurring at the lower elevations. The mountain range’s white skirt is being hoisted, exposing rocks and hinting at the scale of global glacial losses.
My brother Michael and I stayed in the house for a day and a half after they declared the mandatory evacuation. We watched the fire on the mountains, watched it get closer. We both had come to expect this day. After all, this house had burned before.
Santa Barbara is an affluent town, and our house -- a two-bedroom with a downstairs in-law apartment -- is tucked into one of its nicest neighborhoods, in a canyon just outside the city limits.
But ours wasn't the first house to stand in this spot. The original one, which belonged to my grandmother, burned to the foundation in the 1977 Sycamore Canyon blaze. Sparked by a guy and his girlfriend whose kite struck a power line, a raging late July firestorm whipped through the canyon, burning more than 200 homes. It took only about seven hours.
My father was living with my grandmother at the time. They got out safely but lost everything, except some family photos and the dog.
My grandmother rebuilt, and after she died in 2001 and left my father the house, he moved back in. But on Nov. 13, 2008, a fire in the same hills looked ready to take this house out, too.
Michael was 18 and home alone.
"I got home from school and I went into the house, and I remember two things being very out of place," he tells me now, years later. "There was kind of this faint smell of burning wood. And then the other one was a lady running down the street screaming, 'Fire!'"
Michael remembers thinking about that 1977 conflagration as he watched the the Tea Fire, as they called it, sizzle toward the house a little more than 31 years later.
Momentous change doesn't always leave visual cues. A 2008 Obama looks much the same as a 2012 Obama (minus a few gray hairs and Benghazi wrinkles). In some ways, climate change is similar; we can't exactly see villainous clouds of CO2 strangling the sky. But when it comes to glaciers, climate change leaves marks that can be seen from space.
Our friends at GlacierWorks hope to document those scars. Respected mountaineer and GlacierWorks Executive Director David Breashears retraced the steps of past photographers from the Royal Geographical Society to reshoot photos of famous Himalayan glaciers affected by climate change. Thanks to their hard work and internet magic, we can now compare the severity of ice recession by combining the historic and modern images.
On the left is a photo taken by Major E. O. Wheeler in 1921 on the North slope of 26,906-foot Cho Oyu; on the right is a photo taken by Breashears from a similar perspective in 2009. Drag the slider to check out the changes China's Kyetrak Glacier experienced.
Now compare the Main Rongbuk Glacier (near Mt. Everest) in a 1921 photo by George Mallory to Breashears' 2007 image:
Yesterday, we brought you our remarkably unscientific (seriously, it was written by this guy) list of the 10 cities most likely to get hammered by climate change. Today, we thought we’d give you the bright side, such as it is: the 10 towns to which we’ll all be flocking as the rest of the world goes to hell. You’re welcome. (Hey, we don’t call Grist “a beacon in the smog” for nothing.)