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Toasted — California’s 2017 Foreshadowing of the Monster Fires to Come

Part One: The Story of How Global Warming Turned California into Toast.

The Thomas Fire as seen by a webcam located atop Santa Ynez Peak, a 4300′ mountain 17 miles northwest of downtown Santa Barbara on December 10th.

*****

I want you to indulge me for a minute. I want you to put on your scientist hats with me and engage in a bit of an experiment.

Take a bagel. Cut it in half. Dip about 1/3 of it in water for a couple of seconds. Then put the bagel in the toaster oven for about 5-10 minutes. Remove and see the results.

What you’ll find is that the part of the bagel that hasn’t been dipped in water is, well, toast. The dipped part — significantly less so. If you continued to toast the bagel, eventually the heat from the oven will cause the undipped side to burn. Take even more time and the heat would overcome the moisture on the dipped side and cause it to burn as well.

Here was the result of my at-home experiment after about 10 minutes in the oven at 425 degrees. Can you guess which half was dipped in water?

The more heat, the faster both sides of the bagel burn. But the drier side always first. The wetter side always second.

It’s a simple fact that moisture — whether loaded into bagels or soaking into vegetation and the ground — adds more resiliency and resistance to fire. And this year, given the massive amount of moisture that fell across all of California during the winter and spring of 2016-2017 we didn’t really expect summer and fall to be all that bad of a fire season.

That famous Pineapple Express kept delivering storm after storm after storm. Dams were strained to bursting and over-spill. Roads were washed out. Water rescues were performed. And when all was said and done, California had experienced its wettest water-year in all of the last 122. Given such an obscene amount of water flooding the state, we certainly didn’t expect what happened next. All that moisture soaking into lands, soils, trees, vegetation told us a story. It told us a story that we thought we knew.

Accuweather’s California flood forecast from January 9, 2017 is easy to forget given the record fires we see today. But the temperature and moisture extremes experienced are an aspect of a warming climate. These floods inflicted more than 1.5 billion in damages. Source: Accuweather/Wikipedia.

What we didn’t count on was the oven-like heat that followed. Nor the simple fact that resiliency, no matter how strong at first, is not limitless.

Environmentally speaking, heat is the primary factor in fire hazard so long as fuels are present. Drought is also a factor, though a somewhat less certain one because eventually most fuels are consumed if drought sets in for long enough. As with the bagel, enough heat will eventually blast through any moisture loading so long as that moisture is not recharged to great risk of consuming and conflagrating the fuels that soaked up the moisture in the first place.

At its most basic level, this is why global warming promotes fire hazard. If you bake the forests, grasses and shrubs enough, they will burn.

If there is one thing we know about climate change and weather it is that it promotes extremes. Particularly extreme swings between cooler+wet and record hot+dry as the water cycle is thrown through the atmospheric equivalent of a hyperloop. And the level of extremity California experienced from winter to summer ran a six month race from wettest to hottest. For following the early year deluge, 2017 rapidly rocketed into the hottest summer in California history. Temperatures in many places regularly soared to well above the scorching 100 degree mark. Records for all-time hottest days fell like trees before the wild hurricane.

Large sections of the west, including California, experienced their hottest summer on record. Image source: NOAA.

And given so much excessive heat, it didn’t take long for the fires to arise even following a record wet winter.

We won’t go through all the exhaustive numbers of that grim tally of burning. But we will say that more than ten thousand homes and buildings burned. That many souls perished in the blazes. That billions in damages were inflicted. At times, ash and embers rained down across California as if from a volcanic eruption. The skies — marred by great pillars of smoke erupting from a blasted Earth. To say it was merely the worst fire year California has ever experienced would be to do the nightmare of it all an illiterate, unfeeling, lack-compassion injustice.

The summer fires that came with the heat burned mostly the north. The rains, that were so strong in winter took a bad turn once the heat blazed through the lands enough to dry out all that new forest and grass regrowth. Here we were witnessing, before our very eyes, the kind of new conditions 1.1 degrees Celsius worth of global warming was capable of producing.

Firefighter battling the Thomas Fire, which is just 500 acres away from being the largest in California history. Image source: Campus Safety.

Because of that warming, we know now that fire season never really ends any more in California. A point that was driven viciously home as summer proceeded into fall and the fires still raged in October. By December, the heat and dryness had not relented. Not enough at least. The normally wet month had been transformed. And the carry over of that damage done by the furnaces of summer had prepped the land for more burning.

Howling winds from the longest burst of fire fanning winds ever seen for California fed into a new fire. A fire that is now within 500 acres of becoming the largest fire ever to burn in California history. In December. During what should be a wet, cool month. But one that is hotter and drier and fire blasted.

Toasted.

But if we don’t turn back from the warming that caused this, the worst is yet to come.

CREDITS:

Hat tip to Wharf Rat

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Worsening Weather to Feed Monstrous Thomas Fire Through Sunday

It shouldn’t be happening in typically wetter, cooler December. But, due to human-forced climate change, it is.

The Thomas Fire, at 242,000 acres, is now the fourth largest fire in California history. Alone, it has destroyed 900 structures — a decent town’s worth gone up in smoke. And today it threatens pretty much all of Santa Barbara’s 62,000 buildings. For future days promise conditions that could expand the monstrous blaze into the largest fire ever seen for the state.

(Persistent western ridge formation is an expected upshot of sea ice retreat in the Arctic. A feature that will result in a drier, warmer, more fire prone California if the trend toward sea ice melt and global warming continues.)

Firefighters battling the blaze have faced insane odds to manage a herculean feat — achieving 35 percent containment as blowtorch like Santa Ana winds consistently billowed through the region over the past two weeks. These winds have been both abnormally strong and persistent. And they’re run over dry lands through a season that is typically known for its more prevalent rainfall — not the expanding drought we see today.

Given these presently very abnormal conditions, fire officials don’t expect to achieve full 100 percent containment for three more weeks. And that’s with over 8,144 firefighters on the ground assisted by 1,004 fire engines and 27 helicopters.

(The 2012 to 2017 California drought was slaked by rains last winter. However, it appears to have returned in force with southern portions of the state again facing an extended dry period.)

Present weather conditions for California are extraordinary. A persistent ridge of high pressure has hovered over the region. And this high has helped to spike local temperatures, speed a re-emergence of drought, and drive very powerful Santa Ana winds through the region. The high formed as sea ice advance in the Chukchi and Bering Seas far to the north lagged. Open water that is usually ice covered at this time of year radiated more heat into the local atmosphere — providing a slot of warmer air that assisted this drought, heat, and wind-promoting high pressure ridge in forming.

The intensity of these highs, influenced by climate change, out west has consistently risen into the 1040+ hPa range. Highs that have been juxtapposed by a strong low further south near Mexico. And a steep pressure gradient between these two persistent weather systems has helped to drive the very strong, fire-fanning, Santa Ana winds through the region. As the Thomas Fire blossomed last week, fire conditions achieved extremes never before seen in state history as those hot, dry winds roared over hills and through valleys.

(GFS model runs show the fire fanning Santa Ana winds strengthening through Sunday. Hat tip to Dan Leonard.)

Unfortunately, weather models for the next few days show this Santa Ana wind producing pressure gradient either persisting or strengthening. Today, this gradient is producing winds with gusts of up to 55 mph. By Sunday, the high over the Pacific is predicted to face off against a low over Northwestern Mexico. And the gradient between these two systems may further intensify these fire fanning winds. Wind speed and fire hazard are not expected to be as extreme as last week. But the re-intensifying winds will do firefighters no favors.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly to the long range picture, there is not even a hint of rain in the forecast through at least the next week. Dry, warmer than normal weather is expected to remain in place at least through that period. And hope for wetter, cooler weather has only begun to emerge in the longer range, less certain forecast.

Southern California Fires Expand to Over 255,000 Acres as Conditions Worsen

On Sunday, driven by above normal temperatures and fanned by warm winds, the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, California rapidly expanded. This resulted in a loss of containment as the blaze jumped fire breaks — placing parts of Santa Barbara under seige.

(Smoke plumes from the Thomas fire as seen by a webcam located atop Santa Ynez Peak, a 4300′ mountain 17 miles northwest of downtown Santa Barbara.)

This single fire, as of Monday morning, covered 230,000 acres. At that time, it was the fifth largest fire in California history. It was burning in December. And, at the time, the fire was continuing to swiftly grow.

Five other fires burning in Southern California together cover an additional 25,000+ acres. As a result, approximately 255,000 acres are now burning in this region of the state.

The 6,000 firefighters now engaged in battling these blazes had hoped that predicted milder Santa Ana winds would afford them a chance to gain an advantage over these fires this weekend. But this didn’t happen. The western high pressure ridge strengthened. Local temperatures increased to well above the seasonal average. And though winds subsided somewhat, very dry conditions dominated.

Due to the worsening situation, 25,000 structures are now threatened by the fires — up from 20,000 earlier this week. More than 790 structures have been burned or destroyed. More than 95,000 people remain under evacuation orders. And more than 85,000 people are without power. Tragically, the fires have now claimed their first human life as well.

Unfortunately, warmer than normal, dry and windy conditions are expected to continue through at least Friday, December 15th. Resulting in a long running period of heightened fire danger. These climate change related features are driven by a very persistent high pressure ridge over the North American west. A feature that has been linked to loss of sea ice and a warming Arctic in some climate studies.

Overall, climate change is worsening fire danger out west. During summer, hotter and drier conditions are intensifying the California fire season. And during fall through winter, the climate change associated warming, drying and strengthening of the Santa Ana winds is enabling the eruption of very large city-threatening fires during the winter months.

(UPDATED)

CREDITS:

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Eric Holthaus

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Titania Baildon

As Climate Emergencies Rise — A Call For Action

With climate change enhanced wildfires raging across California during December, now is exactly the time to redouble our resolve to fight against the causes of such widespread destruction. To enact policies aimed at reducing the force of a rising crisis that continues to impact so many of our people with increasing intensity.

In California today, there is a move afoot to set a deadline for banning the very fossil fuel based vehicles that have fanned the fires of climate change across the state. To resolve, by 2040, to take gas powered cars off the road.

Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat and sponsor of this legislative drive, notes that for the State to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, it’s going to have to transition away from fossil fuel based vehicles. Such vehicles represent more than 1/3 of all state carbon emissions. And the state can’t effectively address the carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change disasters without also directly targeting the number of fossil fuel based vehicles in operation.

(According to California’s Air Resources Board, nearly 38 percent of the state’s carbon emissions are due to transportation.)

New electrical vehicle (EV) technology is enabling just such a move. According to Ting:

“The market is moving this way. The entire world is moving this way. At some point you need to set a goal and put a line in the sand.”

If California sets a policy to ban fossil fuel based vehicles by 2040, it will join a growing number of cities and states that have already set similar goals. These include France, the United Kingdom, India, Germany, and Norway. Meanwhile, China is pursuing very aggressive incentives to increase the number of EVs as a means of combating terrible local air pollution and climate change.

Movement by cities and states to ban fossil fuel vehicles and incentivize EVs has an out-sized impact. It signals automakers that EV preference by government is becoming widespread. And because manufacturers have limited capital to spend on new vehicles, this drives a manufacturing preference as well.

(In this National Renewable Energy Laboratory study, the most rapid carbon emissions reductions were achieved in scenarios where large-scale EV deployment was combined with wholesale replacement of coal, oil, and gas fired electricity generation with renewable sources like wind and solar.)

Since EVs are more efficient that internal combustion engine based vehicles, they greatly reduce carbon emissions when tied to even traditional grids. But when linked to renewable power sources like wind and solar, EVs produce zero emissions in operation. This combination enables a far more rapid rate of carbon emission reduction.

In addition, the manufacturing base for EV batteries can also be used to build storage systems for intermittent wind and solar energy. This enables the removal of fossil fuel emitting coal and gas fired generators held in reserve for times when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine even as the EVs themselves remove the need for oil based transporation. Such a manufacturing chain also opens up a new market for auto manufacturers — a fact that both Tesla and Hyundai have learned to their benefit.

Because EVs are based on electronic technology that is closely tied to the information age, they can benefit both from synergistic related economies of scale and from various innovations and breakthroughs. This means that EVs already outperform fossil fuel based vehicles in a number of areas. A performance advantage that is increasing and will likely overcome most traditional vehicles by the early 2020s. Because of this advantage, EVs would probably ultimately win out over time. However, the present climate crisis lends urgency to speeding their rate of adoption and in accelerating the rate of harmful fossil fuel based vehicle replacement.

Rise of the Fimbul Fires: Climate Change Enhanced Jets of Flame Rage Across Southern California

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire. I hold with those who favor fire… — Robert Frost

I am Lorn Sparkfell, guardian of First Frost, without which the world will burn. — Luthiel’s Song, The Death of Winter

*****

Fimbul is an old icelandic word for mighty, giant, great. It is an archaic word that has fallen out of modern use. But considering the fact that the fires now ripping through Southern California are both out of the context of recent milder climates and have explosively expanded to gigantic proportion, it is perhaps time that we should re-introduce the term.

(Photograph of Southern California Fires taken from the International Space Station on December 7 of 2017.)

Sections of Southern California are now experiencing never-before-seen levels of fire hazard as winds gusting to near 80 mph across the region are fanning five out of control blazes. The fires are burning during what should be the cooler month of December. But cool conditions have eluded that part of the state. And the blow-torch like Santa Ana winds that are fanning the flames are being enhanced by conditions consistent with human-caused climate change.

Today, the fire index for Southern California is 296. The threshold for an extreme fire index is 165. And 296 is the highest fire index So Cal has ever experienced according to local firefighters. Fire index is a measure of fire risk. So, if these reports are correct, this region has never seen fire danger hit such an extreme intensity.

(Hurricane Force Winds Fuel Massive Wildfires in Southern California from ClimateState.)

Five fires now burning across Southern California have consumed upwards of 120,000 acres — or a region larger than Atlanta. The Thomas Fire in Ventura County is the largest at approximately 96,000 acres. The Rye Fire, Creek Fire, and Skirball fire all continue to burn. And a new fire — the Horizon Fire in Malibu — has recently ignited. None of these fires are more than 15 percent contained. So all are effectively still out of control.

In total, approximately 20,000 buildings are threatened by fire with more than 300 homes and businesses burned already. 200,000 people are under evacuation orders — enough to fill a relatively large city. Thankfully, there have been no reports of loss of human life so far. But animals, including these horses, haven’t been so lucky.

(Average temperatures across the U.S. West were around 4 C above normal for the entire past 30 day period. This is not at all typical. Image source: Global and Regional Climate Anomalies.)

Climate change skeptics and deniers will try to say that such events are normal for California. That fires always happen. That weather is variable. And tell you five or six or seven other kinds of hogwash.

But the fact is that these conditions are not normal. That California has just experienced its worst fire year on record. That the incidence of large fires in the West has risen fourfold since the mid 1980s. And that report after report after report are linking presently worsening fire conditions in the region to climate change.

Other politically motivated individuals will tell you that now is not the time to discuss climate change — by stating that responding to the disaster itself is more important that examining causes. This is also a red herring — as any effective disaster response will include a responsible review of causes.

To this point, if we are to be effective in both responding to this disaster and in reducing future harm, we should look seriously at the underlying causes that are making fires in places like California worse. And if we are exploring why these Fimbul Fires are happening now, then the big issue is climate change — writ large.

CREDITS:

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to ClimateState

Fire Danger Again Rises Across California; Number of Structures Lost in Northern Blazes Increases to 8,400

A California still reeling from the devastating impact of wildfires worsened by human-caused climate change just can’t get a break.

An army of 5,000 firefighters presently remain engaged in attempting to contain the large wildfires that are now unarguably the most destructive in California history. As with the recently very extreme hurricanes, we are still tallying the damage estimates.  And the results are pretty stark. 100,000 of our fellow Americans have been displaced. The loss of souls has risen to 42. In total, 8,400 structures including thousands of homes, have been burned to the ground.

Already, this disaster is yet another in the billion-dollar-class of climate incidents. Now numbering 4 in just the past three months with total estimated losses from the fires ranging from 1 to 3 billion dollars. Unfortunately, this devastating toll is likely to climb as further tallies come in.

(Hottest World Series on record amid severe fire risk.)

Presently, the remaining fires still burning are between 79 and 97 percent contained — according to the most recent report from the National Interagency Fire Center. However, temperatures rising into the upper 90s and lower to middle 100s across the state coupled with strong Santa Ana winds are again increasing fire risk. An elevated fire hazard that expected to persist through Wednesday.

In Los Angeles, red flag parking restrictions have been put in place to enable emergency vehicles to rapidly navigate narrow streets in the event of a new fire start requiring rapid attention. And in the south, numerous small brush fires have already been reported. Thankfully, these have not risen to the rapidly expanding extent or intensity of the northern fires over the past couple of weeks. But concerns, given recent events, remain very high.

(Very hot fall temperatures, Santa Ana winds are again predicted across southern and western sections of California today. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Warming global temperatures in the range of 1 to 1.2 C above 1880s averages are now starting to have a profound impact on the hydrological cycle, storms, and related rates of precipitation and evaporation. In California, increasingly extreme weather in the form of more intense and rapidly forming heatwaves and droughts, and precipitation coming more as heavy rainfall events increases fire risk. This, together with the general impact of warming which moves climate zones faster than trees can follow or adapt and that increases the prevalence of invasive species harmful to trees, has increased the incidence of large fires throughout the U.S. West.

We are now in a situation where fires can threaten entire cities (the devastating fire that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray in Canada was finally declared extinguished during September of 2017 after burning for a year and three months) and where the total number of structures lost can rival the size of a town. This is a terrible impact and hazard for those living in the western and northwestern region. One that did not exist at the level or frequency we see today. And though other factors also contribute — such as increasing encroachment of settlements on wooded areas — the primary factor increasing fire intensity, size, and expanding the length of fire season is human-caused climate change.

The only way we can get a handle on this rising risk is to mitigate and remove the causes of climate change. And that involves working together as a nation to switch the kinds of energy we use to non carbon emitting sources like solar and wind and reducing other harmful practices that emit carbon into our atmosphere.

Links:

Red Flag Parking Restrictions in Effect in LA

Fire Loss Surges to 8,400 Structures in Northern California

California Wildfire Damage Estimates Top $3 Billion

National Interagency Fire Center

Red Flag Warning: Southland Brush Fires

GISS Temperature Data

Devastating Fort McMurray Wildfire Declared out 15 Months Later

Earth Nullschool

Significant Monsters: Climate Change Enhanced Wildfires Tear Widening Swath Through California

“We are facing some pretty significant monsters,” — Cal Fire incident commander Bret Couvea to a room of about 200 firefighters and law enforcement officials at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Wednesday morning.

“Think of the climate change issue as a closet, and behind the door are lurking all kinds of monsters — and there’s a long list of them,” — Steve Pacala.

*****

As of Wednesday, the massive fires blazing across California and concentrated in the north had consumed over 141,000 acres, resulted in the loss of 17 lives, and destroyed more than 2,000 structures. Approximately 50,000 people are now evacuated from the fire zones. And about 500 individuals are reported missing. A grim tally that is unfortunately likely to worsen as the hours and days progress.

This outbreak is now one of the worst fire disasters ever to strike California. One which may break all previous records for tragic loss of life and property when this terrible event finally winds down many days from now and all losses are counted.

Significant Monsters…

In total, eight major fires are still burning across the state. As all but one fire remains uncontained, the area consumed continues to expand. The seven large out of control fires presently range in size from 7,500 to 37,000 acres each and have burned approximately 40,000 additional acres in just the past 24 hours alone. Lighter winds and cooler weather have aided firefighting efforts. But the sudden large scale of the fires erupting Sunday through Tuesday and very dry and occasionally gusty conditions with no rain in sight have produced serious challenges for firefighters.

(The skies of northern California blanketed by smoke from massive blazes streaming like ‘liquid fire’ across Northern California on Tuesday, October 10. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

As of yet, no direct initial cause for the fires has been identified. But the co-location of some fires with downed power lines due to wind gusts up to hurricane force late Sunday night have provided one potential ignition source. Human error or malicious activity have not yet been ruled out.

… Fed by Climate Change …

Regardless of direct cause of ignition, the fires lit in vegetative growth that sprang up after an abnormally wet winter and spring. This growth has flash-dried over summer in a region that received 10-20 percent of its typical moisture allotment over that period. Northern California over recent years has experienced severe drought, extreme rains, and during summer of 2017 flash drying of new vegetative growth. This is a cycle of extremes consistent with human caused climate change. So as with the major hurricanes blowing up over the ocean this year we can definitely say that climate change has played a role in setting conditions that enabled this event to hit a much more fierce than usual intensity.

… Caused by Bad Energy and Environmental Policy Choices

Bad choices — primarily involved with continued policies promoting fossil fuel burning (#1), harmful agricultural practices (#2), and deforestation (#3) have brought us to this pass. Failure to rapidly enable a renewable energy transition and to produce policies that promote less harmful consumption and more sustainable land use will result in an ever-increasing tempo of extreme events.

We see this high tempo now in events that bear the names Harvey, Irma, Maria, California fires and so, so many more over the past few years. Let us hope and pray that it relents enough to give us the space to make the right choices for ourselves, the life supports of our planet, and our children.

RELATED STATEMENTS AND INFORMATION:

A recent climate study found that warming oceans have weakened the southwestern monsoon generating a prevalence for droughts and wildfires in the region. This is a direct result of human-caused climate change:

Links:

The National Interagency Fire Center

NASA Worldview

Some Pretty Significant Monsters

Pure Devastation

California Fires: Before and After Photos

How Did the California Fires Become so Devastating?

Hat tip to Eleggua

Hat tip to Genomik

 

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