Smoke Blankets Western North America, 106 F Temps in Portland, Flash Northern Plains Drought Threatens U.S. Wheat Crop

The climate change related impacts from continued fossil fuel burning just keep on ramping up.

Last Thursday, the mercury struck 106 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon. The reading, just one degree shy of the hottest temperature ever recorded for the city, came after the thermometer soared to the 103 F mark on Wednesday. The extreme heat prompted some locals to re-name the typically wet and cool city — ‘Hotlandia’ — even as a broader severe heatwave blanketed most of the U.S. West.

(Smoke covers large portions of the U.S. West following record heat in many locales. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

During the weekend, the heat shifted north and east — thrusting 90+ degree (F) temperatures into British Columbia where severe wildfires have been raging throughout the summer. As a result, fire intensity spiked once again and great plumes of smoke today blanketed hundreds of miles of western sky.

In total, more than 575,000 hectares have burned in British Columbia so far this year. This is about 6 six times the average rate of wildfire burning for a typically wet and cool region. An intensification of the fire regime that came on as temperatures warmed, climates changed, and indigenous plants found themselves thrust into conditions outside those they’re adapted to.

The extreme heat was brought on by the kind of combined Pacific Ocean warming and upper level high pressure ridge amplification that some researchers have linked to human-caused climate change. And the overall impacts of the system have been as outlandish as they are notable.

(Extreme heat blankets the U.S. on Thursday, August 3rd. Image source: The National Weather Service.)

Further east, the high plains have suffered from extraordinarily dry conditions throughout spring and summer. Since April, rainfall totals have been reduced by 50 percent or more. The drying began with the start of growing season and has continued on through early August. After a rapid intensification during recent weeks, 62 percent of North Dakota and 38 percent of Montana are now blanketed by severe drought conditions or worse.

The drought’s center mass is near the Missouri River Basin — a primary water shed for the northern plains states. Since April, these key regions have seen as little as one quarter the usual precipitation amount. This equals the driest growing season ever recorded for some locations. And overall conditions are about as bad as they have been at any time in the past 100 years.

The result has been the emergence of a very intense flash drought. One of a type that has become more common as atmospheric temperatures have increased and as evaporation from waters and soils has intensified. At Lodgepole Montana, the heat and drought were enough to ignite a 422 square mile wildfire. Covering an area 1/3 the size of Rhode Island, the fire is Montana’s largest blaze since 1910. The fire is now, thankfully, 98 percent contained. More worrisome, the massive blaze is now accompanied by 9 smaller sister fires throughout the state. And all before the peak of fire season.

(Flash drought — a new phenomenon brought on by human-forced climate change — emerges in Montana. Image source: The US Drought Monitor and Grist.)

But perhaps the worst of the drought-related damage has impacted the region’s wheat crops. And reports now indicate that fully half of the Northern Plains wheat crop is presently under threat. Overall current damage estimates for the Northern Plains drought alone are spiking above 1 billion dollars and states are now seeking emergency funding from a relief pool that the Trump Administration recently cut.

But regardless of Trump’s views on climate change or his related lack of preparedness, the damages and risks just continue mounting. Montana resident Sarah Swanson recently noted in Grist:

“The damage and the destruction is just unimaginable. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in decades.”

Sadly, with atmospheric carbon levels in the range of 407 ppm CO2 and 492 ppm CO2e, and with fossil fuel burning still continuing, these kinds of devastating droughts, heatwaves, and fires will just keep on getting worse.

Links:

NASA Worldview

The US Drought Monitor

The National Weather Service

The National Interagency Fire Center

Portland Heatwave

Flash Drought Could Devastate Half the U.S. Wheat Harvest

Drought Spreads Across U.S. Plains

Western Heatwave Breaks Records Across Oregon and Washington

Canada’s Interagency Fire Center

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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

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