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Three Hundred Foot Tall ‘Fire Tsunami’ Burns Through Colorado

A massive 100,000 acre blaze has hurled off 300 foot high walls of fire that local authorities are describing as a ‘fire tsunami.’

The Spring Creek Fire, now the third largest in the Colorado state record, has forced more than 2,000 people to evacuate, destroyed or damaged 200 homes, and drawn the emergency response of 1,000 firefighters.

(Explosive Spring Creek Fire reaches 300 feet in height — forcing hundreds to flee.)

According to public information officer Ben Brack, firefighters were dealing with:

“unprecedented fire behavior. Because the fire has been moving so fast we don’t know exactly how big it has become. It was a perfect firestorm. This is a national disaster at this time. You can imagine standing in front of a tsunami or tornado and trying to stop it from destroying homes. A human response is ineffective.”

Thankfully, and due in large part to heroic efforts by firefighters and emergency responders to evacuate those in the fire’s path, no reports of loss of life have yet been received. Overnight rainfall on the 5th to 6th of July has also given firefighters an opportunity to respond. And now this enormous blaze is 35 percent contained. However, the explosive, lumbering fire is still a serious threat to the region.

Spring Creek Fire burn scar

(NASA satellite image of the Spring Creek Fire burn scar.)

Across the west, fully 60 large fires are now burning across the U.S. from Alaska to the Southeast. But the most intense fires are occurring in the west. These fires are sparking as record heat and severe drought conditions strike the west. And, presently, over 2,900,000 acres have burned on U.S. soil.

Heat is a primary enabler of wildfires. And with temperatures rising due to human-caused climate change, the western wildfire season has grown from 5 months in the 1970s to more than 7 months today. In some locations, like Southern California, the fire season is now year-round. In addition, the size of fires out west is increasing. So long as human fossil fuel burning and related carbon emissions continue, the western fire situation will worsen. With burn areas projected to increase by as much as 650 percent for some regions.

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This is the Climate Pattern Scientists Warned Us About — Wildfires Approach 8 Million Acres in U.S. During Summer of Extreme Western Heat, Severe Eastern Storms

“If the same weather persists for weeks on end in one region, then sunny days can turn into a serious heat wave and drought, and lasting rains can lead to flooding.” — Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf.

“The warming of the Arctic, the polar amplification of warming, plays a key role here. The surface and lower atmosphere are warming more in the Arctic than anywhere else on the globe. That pattern projects onto the very temperature gradient profile that we identify as supporting atmospheric waveguide conditions.”Dr. Michael Mann.

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To say that, for the U.S., it’s been hot out west and stormy in the east this summer is a bit of an understatement. For while the east has seen numerous storms producing local-to-national record rainfall amounts, the west has been baking under heatwaves that appear to have set off one of the worst years for wildfires nationally on record. This is an extreme summer weather pattern that recent scientific studies have linked to human-caused climate change.

(Severe western wildfires blanket northern U.S. under a massive plume of smoke. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Last week, extreme heat baked the U.S. west coast. On Friday, San Francisco hit a record high of 106 degrees (F), striking up to 102 (F) on Saturday. Regions further inland near Eureka hit a Death Valley-like 115 F.  36 million Californians fell under a heat advisory as excessive heat warnings ranged on up the west coast through Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

The heat wave — which was just the most recent of many for the region this year — baked hills and valleys covered with new vegetation springing up after unusually heavy winter rains. Setting off a spree of wildfires that has seen very severe burn rates throughout summer.

Los Angeles County in Burbank experienced its largest fire on record Saturday as a massive blaze swept through the hills — igniting 7,000 acres before being tamped down by the oddly northward tracking remnants of a tropical storm drifting through the region on Sunday.

The fire spurred the response of 1,000 firefighters, forced 700 people to evacuate, closed route 210 for a time and consumed three homes. Assisted by the rains and moisture flowing off the remnants of Lidia, firefighters have now managed to contain 30 percent of this particular blaze. But with many more fires continuing to burn throughout the west, the region is far from out of the proverbial woods.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 70 large fires continue to burn in the western states of Montana, California, Oregon, and Washington. The vast majority of these fires remain uncontained. And at least two exceed 100,000 acres in size. Smoke from these fires has been cycling into the upper level winds for some time now — with most of the northern U.S. falling under a high altitude smoke plume (see top image above).

In total, more than 7,800,000 acres have burned so far in the U.S. this year. This represents the second worst fire year on record so far compared to the last ten years and may ultimately beat out 2006 as the second worst fire year ever recorded. By end 2006, 9 million total acres had burned. During the worst fire year for the U.S. — 2015 — 11 million acres burned in total. By this time during 2015, nearly 9 million acres had been consumed compared to 2017’s present total near 8 million acres.

These fires are occurring primarily in the west where a persistent high amplitude ridge in the Jet Stream has formed. This ridge keeps enabling heatwaves to bake the region and spike fire dangers. And it’s a weather feature that some scientists are saying is linked to human-caused climate change — which is causing the Arctic to warm, while pulling meridional south-to-north upper level winds into the polar zone and producing a wavier jet stream during extreme weather patterns.

(A study produced by a team of scientists including Dr. Michael Mann in March linked extreme summer weather patterns to polar warming and a wavier jet stream.)

The net effect is to create a kind of Halo of Storms and Heatwaves over the middle and upper latitude regions of the world. Earlier this year, The Scientific American noted:

What we think happens is that when there is a ridge forming in a location where Arctic warming can intensify it, that makes the ridge strong and builds it even farther northward. It creates an even bigger wave in the jet stream. You get a stronger ridge over western North America and a stronger southward dip that is farther toward eastern North America.

A subsequent scientific study lead by Dr. Michael Mann and presented in March of this year found that:

… analysis of both historical model simulations and observational surface temperature data, strongly suggests that anthropogenic warming is impacting the zonal mean temperature profile in a manner conducive to wave resonance and a consequent increase in persistent weather extremes in the boreal summer.

And this is exactly what we’ve seen over the U.S. this summer. A stronger than normal ridge in the west fueling record heatwaves and wildfires and a stronger than normal trough in the east fueling more extreme storms. This is a pattern of juxtapposed extremes. One that appears to be fueled by climate change related factors.

Links:

NASA Worldview

National Interagency Fire Center

Largest Wildfire in Los Angeles History Burns Amid Record-Setting Heat

The Arctic is Getting Crazy

Extreme Weather Events Linked to Climate Change’s Influence on the Jet Stream

A Halo of Storms and Heatwaves

U.S. Climate of Troubles: Record Heat Out West, Severe Floods in the East

Yesterday a record heatwave affecting 40 million people cracked pavement, grounded flights, threatened power grids and risked serious injuries across the Southwestern U.S. Meanwhile, today, a heavily moisture laden tropical storm Cindy is threatening to dump 10 to 15 inches or more of rain on parts of the U.S. Southeast. A pair of opposite weather extremes of the kind we’ve come to expect more and more of in a world that’s warmed by about 1.2 C above 1880s averages.

(Very extreme weather conditions settled over the U.S. on June 20. Today, Cindy is expected to bring extraordinary rainfall totals to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Video source: ClimateState.)

Record-Shattering Western Heat

Yesterday, the mercury struck a scorching 127 degrees F in Death Valley California — the hottest June 20th ever recorded for that heat-blasted lowland. Meanwhile, Death Valley-like heat spilled out over a large swath of the southwest. Phoenix fell just shy of its daily record as temperatures struck 119 F. And Las Vegas tied its all-time record of 117 F (which was set just four years ago on June 30th). Needles, Daggett and Barstow in California joined Kingman in Arizona and Desert Rock in Nevada to also break previous heat records as temperatures soared to between 111 and 115 F across these cities and towns.

(Record heat hammered the U.S. West on Tuesday spiking fire hazards, grounding planes, causing power outages and increasing the risk of heat injury. Image source: National Weather Service.)

All these severe high temperatures took a serious toll as both cities and citizens fell under blast-furnace-like conditions. In Phoenix, 43 flights were grounded. Aircraft could not generate enough lift for a safe take-off in the thin, low-density hot air. Total number flights grounded since Monday now tops 50 for the city — with more expected Wednesday when temperatures are expected to hit 118 F.

As flights were grounded in Phoenix, fires began to spark across the Southwest. Several fires ignited in Southern California including a large 950 acre blaze near Big Bear. In Utah, hundreds of people were forced to evacuate a ski town when a weed-killing torch ignited a swiftly spreading fire. And in southwest Arizona, a wildfire burned 8 structures as more than 100 firefighters rushed to contain the blaze. Firefighters across the southwest struggled against some of the most difficult conditions imaginable — extreme heat, blustery southerly winds, and rapidly-drying vegetation.

Record heat also overwhelmed grids when customers cranked up air conditioning and high temperatures put a major strain on power lines and transformers. With California temperatures climbing to historic levels yesterday, power outages were reported across Central Valley and on into the Bay area. Extreme warming of road surfaces caused highways to buckle even as hospitals prepared for a surge of various heat-related injuries from burns, to heat exhaustion, to heat stroke.

(Recent warming of ocean surfaces to well above average ranges off the U.S. West Coast have likely boosted the development of the recent western heatwave. Ocean surface warming is a signature condition of human-caused climate change. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

A strong high pressure system and a large associated ridge aided by abnormally warm waters off the U.S. West Coast are the primary regional causes of the most recent heatwave. The pool of warm water in the Northeast Pacific — somewhat reminiscent of the Hot Blob that formed in the nearby ocean zones during 2014 and 2015 — appears to be boosting the development of upper level ridges and related surface heat over the region as temperatures climb to 10 to 25 F or more above normal for many locations. Despite recent record winter and spring rainfall for parts of the region, this new heatwave is starting to again advance drought conditions across the Southwest. Yet another hard shift in weather extremes from wet and cool to dry and hot that can likely be linked to climate change.

Cindy Ushers in Severe Flooding across the Gulf Coast

While the west scorches under extreme heat, the weather threat to the U.S. Southeast comes in the form of severe flooding. In the Gulf of Mexico, a sprawling Tropical Storm Cindy is interacting with a stalled frontal system to spike moisture levels in the atmosphere above the U.S. Gulf Coast. Already, between 3 and 9 inches of rain have fallen over parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama. But the slow-moving, heavy rain bearing Cindy is poised to dump still more.

(24 hour rainfall totals show that heavy precipitation in the range of 3 to 9 inches have already fallen across the Gulf Coast. Cindy is expected to bring even more over the coming days. Image source: NOAA.)

According to NOAA QPC predictions for the next week, as much as 8.5 additional inches of rainfall could impact already-flooded parts of SE Louisiana. And when all is said and done, the system is forecast to drop between 10 and 15 inches or more of rainfall over parts of the area. The storm is not presently expected to rival last year’s August rain event which dumped up to 30 inches over the same region. Of course, with climate change boosting rainfall potentials by warming the Gulf of Mexico and spiking atmospheric moisture and instability, the unexpected can certainly happen. Let’s just hope that’s not the case with Cindy. But 10-15 inch rainfall totals are certainly disruptive enough. And with some streets in New Orleans already seeing 2-3 feet of flooding as more storms rush in from the Gulf, this event is certainly far from finished.

Links/Credits:

National Weather Service

ClimateState

Earth Nullschool

NOAA

Tropical Storm Cindy Pushes Toward Central Gulf Coast

Hat tip to Suzanne

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to Tigertown

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