Drought, Climate Change Spur Severe Election Day Wildfire Outbreak Across Four-State Area

It’s November. A month when the United States should be cooling down toward winter-like conditions. But for the mountainous region along the four-state area bordering Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, the climate are anything but fall-like. There, enormous wildfires are now raging, spilling out massive plumes of choking smoke into the abnormally warm air over lands that have been flash-dried by climate change related heat.

Massive Wildfires Strike Dry Lands

large-wildfires-smokey-mountains-november-7

(Very large wildfires burning across the Smokey Mountain region on November 7. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

In the above satellite image, taken by NASA on November 7, 2016, we see multiple fires with fronts ranging from 1 to 5 miles wide erupting over the Smokey Mountain region of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. Some fires appear to straddle the border with Virginia. Large fires also burn further east between Ashville and Charlotte. Together, these fires are emitting smoke plumes that currently stretch upwards of 350 miles — wafted north and west by warm, southerly winds.

Fire warnings and public announcements urging people to not light campfires were given back on November 1. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) provided initial information on multiple fires sparking throughout this four state region on November 4th. MODIS satellite shots for the 4th show that these fires were then much smaller — barely visible in the imagery. Image and ground based reports now indicate that the fires became considerably larger and more threatening over the weekend.

(The view over western North Carolina yesterday afternoon as wildfires burned through the mountainous region.)

By Monday, local news agencies were reporting the outbreak of 170 fires in Georgia alone with 4,000 acres already burned in the northern part of the state. In Tennessee 96 currently active fires are reported to have consumed 9,000 acres. Campbell, in the eastern part of the state, was particularly hard-hit with over 3,400 acres burned as of this afternoon and declining air quality setting off Code Red Alerts. In Kentucky, 11,000 acres had been consumed as of Monday. North Carolina, meanwhile, called up 350 firefighters to fight multiple large and growing blazes.

Flash Drought, Extreme Warmth

Over September and October, the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. has been both extremely warm and extreme dry. Temperatures for the month of October have ranged between 5 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit above average for a majority of the lower 48 states.

us-drought-monitor-thursday-nov-3

(Extreme heat over the southeastern U.S. has helped to promote flash drought conditions together with very large wildfires now burning in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Image source: The U.S. Drought Monitor.)

Together with the heat has come a rapid emergence of drought conditions. In particular, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky have experienced increasingly extreme conditions. In Kentucky, for example, the week ending on November 1st saw the state’s drought coverage more than triple jumping from 24 percent to 81 percent of the state’s land area within just seven days.

Flash drought is a new feature of climate change brought on by increasing rates of evaporation due to warming lands and airs. The extra warmth draws moisture out of soil and vegetation more rapidly and can spark the emergence of extreme conditions on short time-scales. The current flash drought was already causing problems in the Southeast before the recent spate of wildfires. However, given the intense, unseasonal warmth and the speed at which the lands have dried, the present fire outbreak represents a serious and unusual hazard for this time of year.

Links:

LANCE MODIS

The National Interagency Fire Center

The U.S. Drought Monitor

North Georgia Fire Outbreak

Tennessee Air Quality Alert as Wildfires Belch Smoke

Kentucky Wildfire Outbreak

Wildfires Burn in Western North Carolina

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to NCFireFighters

Hat tip to Titania

Leave a comment

27 Comments

  1. wili

     /  November 8, 2016

    The weather is rigged…well, actually, it kinda is!

    Reply
  2. Griffin

     /  November 8, 2016

    Thanks for this informative post Robert. I have not heard of these fires anywhere but in this space! You folks are the best.

    Reply
    • Bob alerted me to this one, Griff. I do global sat analysis every day and missed this one. It was reported in some local sources. Stu Ostro mentioned it on Twitter. That’s about it.

      Reply
  3. coloradobob

     /  November 8, 2016

    Years ago in the West –
    Wild fire season is now year round.

    Reply
  4. coloradobob

     /  November 8, 2016

    Hat tip to Colorado Bob,,,,,,,,,,,

    This is the best effort we ever made. I am happy to be with DTL, and RS.

    Reply
  5. Eric Thurston

     /  November 8, 2016

    Asheville was old stomping grounds for me. I lived in that area for 30 odd years. Over that period I could see the forests gradually losing their health, with various species of borer beetles, wooly adelgids, and so on. Wildfires in this part of the Eastern deciduous forest were uncommon, though not unheard of. There was usually enough moisture to keep wildfires from developing into a major event, and an occasional mini drought was fairly easily survived. The new post-fire undergrowth would come back much more quickly than it does in the western states. I hate to say it, but it was only a matter of time before we started having larger, more persistent fires there, given the climatic trend.

    The development of the area was disconcerting to see over the time I lived there, but this wildfire outbreak in these beautiful forests is frightening and heart breaking.

    Reply
  6. Spike

     /  November 8, 2016

    I guess they weren’t called smokey mountains for this reason.

    Reply
    • It come from an old Cherokee name — shaconage — which means place of blue smoke. However, the name was meant to describe the effect of mist hovering near the mountain peaks that gave them a blue and smokey appearance. Though fires do sometimes burn in the region, this area is not prone to fires like the west. Vegetation is not adapted to wildfires as a result. Furthermore, the emergence of wildfires in November is a conspicuously odd occurrence. One that is in line with what we would expect from human caused climate change.

      Reply
  7. Spike

     /  November 8, 2016

    More than a dozen Alaska firefighters have been sent to the southeastern United States in the past two weeks to help firefighting efforts there, according to a news release from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.

    http://www.newsminer.com/news/local_news/alaska-firefighters-deploy-to-southeast-us/article_0179c654-a596-11e6-ad02-53c1e2799119.html

    Reply
    • Thanks for this Spike. Also noticed that they are sending firefighters in from New York State. Alabama and Virginia are now on the list for states experiencing significant wildfires.

      Reply
  8. Shawn Redmond

     /  November 8, 2016

    The flash drought? This is something that I find extremely interesting. For the better part of two decades I’ve been musing aloud to anyone who would listen. The old trail I follow to one of my favourite fishing holes would dry up in just a few sunny days in March/April. Until the late 90’s early 2000’s it just wouldn’t happen before June/July, and then it would require warm days. My point is that the increased rate of evaporation seems to have been building over time at a noticeable rate if you choose to look. Here in my neck of the woods it doesn’t seem to require heat for this to happen. Our springs here in Nova Scotia have been staying cool further into the year but the water stills dries up. There’s probably a scientific explanation for the rate of drying in the new atmosphere. It’s just counter intuitive at first glance to look at a wetter atmosphere and see drier ground!

    Reply
    • So as the Earth warms overall, the preference is for more drought, more deluge. The added heat has a net effect on the hydrological cycle, increasing rates of evaporation and precipitation by about 7 percent per degree Celsius. This effect is uneven. It tends to make weather events more extreme. For example, a typical storm at 0 C warming is somewhat different at 1 C or 2 C. But the more extreme storms are significantly altered. The same is true with drought. Where things would tend to be warm and dry, they tend to be much warmer, much drier. In such cases drought progresses faster due to drought related feedbacks — lands that become dry tend to tip toward dryness by creating their own weather patterns.

      As for increasing drought with not temperatures change — I doubt that. What you are probably seeing is that average conditions have warmed. So even days or weeks that are in normal temperature ranges prefer dryness due to the long-term impact of net warming.

      Reply
  9. climatehawk1

     /  November 8, 2016

    Tweet scheduled.

    Reply
  10. Vic

     /  November 8, 2016

    From the Hyperloop One company – “We’ve signed an agreement with RTA Dubai to jointly pursue a passenger and cargo hyperloop network in Dubai and between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and other Emirates. This could reduce the time from Dubai to Abu Dhabi to 12 minutes.”

    Reply
  1. A big week in climate and nuclear news « nuclear-news

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