The smoke here in Atlanta has been surreal — Meteorologist Stu Ostro
It’s a script that reads like something from the pages of a dystopian sci-fi novel:
In Dallas, on November 16, the thermometer hit 88 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking a 95 year old record. In Ada, Oklahoma the mercury struck 85 degrees F. Further north in high-elevation Denver, temperatures soared to 78 F — punching through a 75 year old record.
Meanwhile, strange, out-of-season wildfires continued to burn from the U.S. South to North Dakota and New England. In Atlanta, smoke streaming out of nearby wildfires blanketed the city. Red-eyed residents were increasingly forced to don protective masks beneath the choking late-fall pallor. In Chattanooga, over 200 residents were hospitalized from smoke inhalation and shortness of breath.
(NASA satellite image of smoke streaming out from Appalachian wildfires on November 16, 2016. Note that smoke plume stretches over large sections of North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia — stretching all the way to coast and spilling out over the Atlantic. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
Today, winds blowing out of the northwest pushed smoke over large sections of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. And numerous additional locations issued air quality alerts.
Mass Mobilization to Fight Surreal Fall Wildfires
In the neighboring Appalachian region alone, more than 5,000 firefighters employing 24 helicopters and other pieces of heavy equipment have been battling blazes throughout forested lands for almost a week. A single fire in the North Georgia Mountains is larger in size than Manhattan. And with numerous large blazes raging throughout the region, about 130,000 acres has burned so far in an area that rarely sees large fires during summer — much less in the middle of November.
Asked about the situation, Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro said — “The smoke here in Atlanta has been surreal, and [occurs] in the context of the persistent lack of precip and above average temperatures.”
Conditions in the Context of Climate Change
In a number of cases, it appears that arsonists have ignited some of these fires. But warm conditions more similar to summer than fall have combined with an extreme drought spreading through the affected regions to push fire danger through the roof. So the impact of any ignition source is dramatically compounded by the heat and dryness. And the most intense fires are now burning in a region of extreme to exceptional drought centered on the mountains of North Georgia.
(Odd, unseasonable warmth blankets much of the U.S. and Canada in this surface air temperature anomaly map as wildfires rage in the southeast on November 16. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)
Such extreme drought and related intense warmth is not a normal climate feature for the southeast during November. Cool weather often dominates the North Georgia region at this time of year. But 2016, a year when global temperatures are now likely to hit 1.2 C above 1880s averages, brings with it an increasing likelihood of unseasonable heat and related rapidly developing drought in the affected areas. These fires, thus, occur under weather conditions that are consistent with what we would expect from human-caused climate change.
Note: Renowned and respected meteorologist Stu Ostro was generous enough to provide commentary on the smoke/fire situation in Atlanta — which includes a note on how odd he thinks the current situation is. That said, the analysis and assertion that the current situation is not normal and is related to climate change is my own initial observation. Stu’s inclusion in this analysis is in no way meant to imply that he agrees fully or in part with my particular assessment. You may want to seek his own professional opinion on the matter here on Twitter as I have found that he is both friendly and accessible.
Note: Official agencies issue burn warnings during dry times for a reason. Anyone lighting fires during such times of extreme dryness — like the present — represents a hazard to public safety. Health, property, the resiliency of our national forests, and individual livelihoods are all put at risk by careless, reckless or malicious use of fire under these circumstances. Please heed the guidance of local, state and national authorities in such instances.