Firestorm: 1,500 Structures Destroyed as Massive Wildfires Blaze Through Northern California

Heat and drought and fire. A common litany these days for California — a state that has, year after year, been wracked by a series of unprecedented climate extremes.

After a brief respite this winter, northern parts of a state reeling from woes related to human-caused climate change again settled into drought this summer. Having received near record amounts of rain during winter — enough to wreck the spillway at the Lake Oroville Dam — vegetation sprang anew. This rain-spurred growth then subsequently dried — developing widespread fuels for fires.

(Northern California near Santa Rosa saw humidity drop to as low as 10-12 percent even as strong winds raged through the region. Such dry, windy condition are key ingredients for increasing fire hazard. Widely available fuels from the abnormally wet winter carried over into a drier than normal summer to increase fire risks. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

These are exactly the kinds of extreme conditions climate scientists warned about as a result of human-forced warming. And the impacts for Northern California over the past 24 hours have been terrible.

Yesterday evening, a frontal system brought with it gusts approaching hurricane force to the region. The winds — warm and dry — raked over the lands and forests. Red flag warnings were posted. For even the smallest spark could spur a very dangerous fire under such dry, windy, and warm conditions.

Multiple fires, source presently unknown, subsequently erupted. The fires rapidly grew — raging across the hills and valleys near Santa Rosa. Embers caught up in the gusts traveled for miles. Where-ever they landed, tinder-dry fuels ignited.

Thousands were forced to flee in the middle of the night late Sunday and early Monday morning as the rapidly growing fires encroached on neighborhoods, towns and cities. Many had no time to gather belongings as pristine lands exploded into hellish flares. So far, 1,500 homes and commercial buildings are counted among the lost even as a number of people have gone missing. Entire subdivisions and wineries went up in flames. Two hospitals were forced to evacuate. Cell phone coverage to the region was cut off.

Today, the fires still rage as weaker winds provide some hope that an army of scrambling firefighters can start to get a hold on the firestorm. What is known is that this particular event is one of the worst wildfire disasters in California state history.

In this context, we should be very clear that human carelessness often provides the ignition sources for fires in areas like Northern California. However, without the underlying severe climate conditions, such fires would not have become so large or spread so fast.

RELATED STATEMENTS AND INFORMATION:

Links:

California Firestorm Among Worst in State History

Earth Nullschool

Unprecedented Climate Extremes: One Year After Record Drought, Lake Oroville is Spilling Over

Extreme Weather and Climate Change

Hat tip to Genomik

 

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Area Burned in Severe Northwest Territory Wildfires Doubles in Just One Day

In just one day, an area of land covering 1,860 square miles of the Northwest Territory has burned. That’s a zone 50 percent larger than the entire state of Rhode Island going up in smoke over just one 24 hour period. And as you can see from the GOES satellite animation below, the volume of smoke being produced by fires burning in a permafrost thaw region is quite extreme:

*****

Over the past week, the Arctic and sub-Arctic Northwest Territories (NWT) of Canada have been baking under an intense late-summer heatwave. At a time when NWT temperatures should be cooling down from July peaks, most days of the past seven have seen the mercury rise into the upper 80s and lower-to-middle 90s (Fahrenheit).

These 10-35 degree (F) above average temperatures sweltered coniferous forests, peat bogs and thawing permafrost. The high temperatures also unleashed Arctic and sub-Arctic thunderstorms. A new breed of weather for this typically cool zone. One that has been enabled by a human-forced warming of our world through fossil fuel burning — causing temperatures in the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

(Extreme heat in the range of 95 degrees F [35 C] blankets the Northwest Territories on August 11, 2017 — drying vegetation and promoting wildfire producing lightning strikes. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

As lightning strikes rained down over forests and peatlands unprepared for such intense warmth and energy, large fires began to spark. These fires were not yet as visible from the satellite as their, at the time, larger British Columbia brethren (lower left in the image below). But they were in a far northern region that has a recent if rather anomalous history of rapid fire expansion. And already, wispy plumes of smoke were becoming visible even in the wider-angle satellite shots.

Up until August 7th, fires in the Northwest Territory region of Canada had been a bit moderate compared to recent years. In total, about 330,000 hectares had burned throughout 2017. This put the region slightly above the 25 year average for fires, but well behind the more intense rates of burning seen in recent years. As of yesterday (August 14th), this number had climbed to 442,000 acres — exceeding the 15 year average, but still behind the more intense 5 year average.

(Intense Northwest Territory Wildfires begin to spark on August 7th of 2017. These fires are visible near center frame. Note intense fires burning in British Columbia at lower left. For reference, bottom edge of frame is approx 1,200 miles. Image Source: NASA Worldview.)

At this time, however, the satellite imagery was starting to look quite ominous (see image below). Very large and intense rings of fire were starting to expand north of Uranium City. And these fires were casting vast thick and inky plumes of smoke up and over much of Northern Canada. Their visible size and intensity hinted that something pretty extreme was happening on the ground.

As the fires appeared to explode in size, the various wildfire monitors began to check in. In just one day, according to the most recent NWT Current Fire Situation Report, these massive fires more than doubled the total amount of land burned with 924,000 hectares now listed as consumed. This is roughly 3,565 square miles — or about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. With an area fifty percent larger than the size of Rhode Island (1,860 square miles) being consumed in just one day.

(Very intense wildfires burning on August 14 rapidly expanded to consume a section of territory larger than Rhode Island in just one day. For reference, bottom edge of frame is approx. 1,000 miles. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Meanwhile, land area burned for the Northwest Territory is now above the 5 year average. With these fires burning so intensely, and with hot conditions still on tap for next 48 hours, this already large burn area could continue to rapidly expand.

Much of this burning is occurring along a vast line of wildfires stretching for 200 miles south of Great Slave Lake. In other words, this is a fire line long enough to stretch the distance between Norfolk, Virginia and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And the very dense smoke plumes being emitted by these amazingly large fires are likely to ultimately encircle the globe.

(Two hundred mile line of fires south of Great Slave Lake has completely blocked out satellite visual of the lake from orbit. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Rainfall and cooler conditions by Friday might tamp down these blazes. But the situation at this time appears to be quite severe. Thankfully, unlike the terrible fires that have consumed hundreds of homes and forced tens of thousands to evacuate in British Columbia this summer or the Fort McMurray Fire of 2016 which forced the emptying of an entire city, these massive Northwest Territory fires are presently burning in remote areas.

However, the rapid expansion, large size and vast smoke plumes of these fires bear a grim testament to the fact that the fire regime has vastly changed for the worse in the Arctic nation of Canada. A situation that will continue to dramatically intensify so long as fossil fuels keep being burned.

(UPDATED)

Links:

Earth Nullschool

NASA Worldview

Canadian Interagency Fire Center Situation Report

NWT Current Fire Situation Report

Hat tip to Shawn Redmond

Hat tip to Spike

Fire in the Land of Ice: Massive Wildfires Rage Over Greenland and Siberia

Like never before, regions we typically associate with cold and ice are being over-run by wildfires. It’s a situation brought on by human-caused climate change. For our continued burning of fossil fuels is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Under this oppressive influx of heat, the permafrost is thawing. And the fragile plants, frozen lands, and soils dependent on much cooler conditions simply cannot cope. Increasingly, and on greater and greater scales, they are burning.

(Large Greenland fire captured by NASA’s Earth Observatory on August 7th.)

This past week, an outlandish wildfire ignited about 100 miles southwest of Ilulissat near the western coast of Greenland. The fire, visible by satellite, cast a long smoke plume even as it exploded into fierce intensity. The odd blaze subsequently generated a rash of expert chatter among Arctic observers on twitter even as news sources like NPR scrambled for contextual information.

Due to typically very low fire incidence, Greenland lacks a national forest fire information center. However, widespread satellite reports and news based observation provide a pretty clear context for this odd event. According to news reports from NPR, the fire itself is a complex of multiple blazes — the largest of which has expanded to 3,000 acres. It’s a massive forest fire. And it’s exceptionally odd seeing such a blaze light up in typically-frozen Greenland.

(Time lapse of massive Greenland wildfire provided by Meteos.)

The fire ignited as temperatures rose to near 70 degrees (F) across the region. A range that is well above average for this Arctic zone. And brisk, down-sloping winds likely helped to speed the fire’s initial rapid expansion.

Fires do occur at times in Greenland. But they are usually rare and small. This year’s fires, on the other hand, have been exceptional. Preliminary satellite observation indicates that as much as 8 times the typical number of active fires have ignited so far in Greenland during 2017. And there is every indication that this particular fire complex is the largest ever recorded on an island that is mostly blanketed by thousands of feet of ice.

(Analysis of active wildfire pixels in Greenland satellite analysis indicates a substantially increased rate of burning in 2017.)

The fire itself is burning through peatlands — which contain deep, carbon-rich soils. In many regions, thawed permafrost ultimately becomes peat. In addition, peat itself is very sensitive to climate change related warming. For as exceptional heat dries the peat, it becomes a deep, dense fuel for fires. When the fires ultimately come, they can eat far into the peat soils — burning 3 feet or more beneath the ground.

Though not as bad as fossil fuel burning for the climate system, peat fires do provide a troubling amplifying feedback to human-caused climate change if they become widespread and if large permafrost zones thaw into peat and subsequently burn. One researcher noted to the New York Times last year that: “It’s carbon that has accumulated over several thousands of years. If it were to be released, the global CO2 concentration would be much higher.”

(Fires burning near the melting Greenland Ice Sheet are likely in a recently thawed permafrost zone. Permafrost contains a massive carbon store that if released will further exacerbate human-caused warming. Wildfires are one mechanism promoting that release. And as Arctic lands thaw and warm, more large fires are popping up across the Arctic. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Jessica L. McCarty, an Assistant Professor of Geography at Miami University provides further context regarding the massive Greenland fires:

“They are likely occurring in areas of degraded permafrost, which are predicted to have high thaw rates between now and 2050 with some evidence of current melt near Sisimiut. Fires in the High Northern Latitudes release significant CO2, CH4, N20, and black carbon. A fire this close to the Greenland Ice Shelf is likely to deposit additional black carbon on the ice, further speeding up the melt.”

Siberian Wildfires Now Extremely Intense

In many places throughout the Arctic, rapidly warmed and dried peatlands, forests and previously frozen permafrost zones are also burning. In Siberia the inky smoke plumes from massive fires today stretch for nearly 2,000 miles. Numerous fire complexes that dwarf the odd Greenland blaze are plainly visible in the satellite picture.

(The smoke plume in this image would blanket most of Greenland. Massive wildfires belch giant plumes of inky smoke over Siberia and the Arctic Ocean on August 9th. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 1,200 miles. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

The fires come with extreme heat along a high pressure ridge zone stretching from Lake Baikal all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Today, temperatures in this Arctic and near Arctic region are ranging from 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit or as much as 35 degrees (F) above average.

With so much Arctic warming and thawing now ongoing, massive fires have become a frequent occurrence during summertime in Siberia recently. And this year, Russia has resorted to cloud seeding in an apparently fruitless attempt to suppress the enormous blazes.

Most of today’s fires are burning in Yakutia — which contains one of the largest global stores of permafrost carbon in the world. During recent years, permafrost has more and more rapidly thawed through this zone — providing a larger and larger store of peat-like fuels for the kinds of fires we are seeing today.

Links:

NASA Worldview

A Massive Wildfire is Now Burning in Greenland

Wildfire in Greenland

Wildfires are Burning in Greenland

Greenland Hit by Largest Wildfire on Record

Making Rain to Extinguish Wildfires

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to Vic

Hat tip to Greg

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

European Heat, Drought, Fires Bite Deep as 1 Million Impacted by Water Rationing in Rome

“This year was not bad, it was catastrophic. I can’t remember a year like this since 1992 when I was a little child,”Joaquin Antonio Pino, a cereal farmer in Sinlabajos, Avila.

“We will see a lot more surprises and fires burning in places that don’t have a fire history. We’ll see more fires and more intense fires in the Mediterranean and new fire situations in countries that don’t really expect it.” — Alexander Held, a senior expert at the European Forest Institute.

“Rome faces eight hours a day without running water after a halt was ordered on pumping water from a nearby lake.” — BBC.

(Europe — sweltering under heat and drought — is blanketed by triple the typical number of wildfires during July of 2017. Image date is July 17. Bottom edge of frame is approximately 2,500 miles. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Water Rationing in Rome

According to reports from BBC, Reuters, and The Guardian, about 1 million residents of Rome are now facing 8 hour periods without water supplies. Across the country, lake levels are at record lows after the driest spring in 60 years followed by a series of severe European heatwaves that recent scientific research indicates was made substantially more likely by human-caused climate change due to fossil fuel burning. Drought-related reductions of water withdrawals from drying lakes are spurring these major curtailments of public water access.

Severe Crop Damage

As Romans face water rationing for the first time in modern memory, across southern Europe, farmers are reeling as olive and wheat crops are severely stressed by both drought and by temperatures that in some places have hit in excess of 40 degrees Celsius (105 F). The cost of Spanish wheat has risen more than 40 percent even as prices for Italian olives have spiked by 50 percent. Cereal crop production in both states have fallen to the lowest level in 20 years. Meanwhile, damage estimates to crops from the widespread heat and drought in Italy alone has risen to between 1 and 2.3 billion dollars.

Warming temperatures spreading northward into Europe from the Sahara as climates warm have generated widespread stress for farmers over recent years. These growers, increasingly sensitive to climate change-based stresses are, more and more often, questioning the viability of farming as a livelihood.  From Reuters:

Some see rising temperatures as a long-term trend, which threatens the viability of farming in the region.

“In this situation … you realize it’s almost impossible to keep going. You think OK, this year I will try to manage, but if the harvest is like this next year you won’t be able to cope any more,” said farmer Tocchi, who is also the local head of farmers’ group Confagricoltura.

Triple the ‘Normal’ Rate of Wildfire Burning

Heat and drought hitting water supplies and crops was also accompanied by a severe spate of wildfires raging across Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, France, Portugal, and Spain during recent weeks. Thousands have been evacuated as tens of thousands of acres burned and armies of firefighters battled blazes across numerous states. Tragically, 64 people were killed by one swiftly-moving Portugal fire during early July.

(Rates of wildfire burning were already heightened as warming intensified through Europe during 2008 through 2016. The 2017 spike, however, is triple even that already elevated level. Image source: EFFIS.)

Overall, the 677 fires igniting across Europe during 2017 is about triple that of an average year for Continent. An increased rate of burning that experts are also blaming on climate change as temperatures increase and fire seasons lengthen. From EuroNews:

Alexander Held, a senior expert at the European Forest Institute, backed Curt’s claim saying fires were starting earlier and burning for longer.

“We will see a lot more surprises and fires burning in places that don’t have a fire history,” Held told Euronews. “Spain burns, yes, but it’s not a surprise. We’ll see more fires and more intense fires in the Mediterranean and new fire situations in countries that don’t really expect it.”

Links:

NASA Worldview

BBC

Reuters

The Guardian

The Atlantic

EuroNews

Hat tip to Plaza Red

 

Echoes of Fort McMurray — Massive Wildfire Forces the Emptying of Another Canadian City

A little more than a year after a massive wildfire forced the full evacuation of Fort McMurray in Alberta, another set of extreme wildfires in British Columbia is again forcing major population centers to empty. In the region of Williams Lake and Cariboo City, 17,400 people have been forced to flee as a wildfire is threatening the major highway exiting the area. As the fire expands, another 27,000 in the broader province may also be asked to leave. This mass evacuation has been enough to empty large urban centers — turning them into ghost towns as fires rage through the surrounding countryside.

On Saturday, 40 mph winds, hot temperatures in the 90s (F), and lightning strikes fanned flames in the region — considerably worsening the fire situation and spurring more comprehensive evacuation orders. Heavy rains earlier in the year caused rapid vegetation growth. But as much warmer than normal temperatures accompanied by dry, windy conditions entered the region in June and July, the new growth has turned into tinder — adding a serious fire hazard.

(Scores of very large wildfires rage across British Columbia on July 15 — casting smoke plumes that now stretch across most of Canada. For reference, bottom edge of this image frame covers roughly 550 miles. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Presently, 160 wildfires are now burning across British Columbia. This number is down from more than 200 fires earlier in the week. However, many of the larger fires have grown in size. The result is that the province is still under a very severe alert level 4 with a mass mobilization of firefighting resources underway. On July 15, the fires were clearly visible in NASA satellite imagery (see above).

Precipitation extremes and increasingly warm temperatures are a hallmark signal of human caused climate change resulting from continued fossil fuel burning. And it is these kinds of conditions that have dominated British Columbia over recent months. Both the strong swing from wet to dry conditions accompanied by much warmer than normal summer temperatures is climate change related and has likely served to increase the fire danger throughout British Columbia this year.

Links:

Winds Fan Flames in Fire-Stricken British Columbia

Entire City of Williams Lake Evacuated as Fire Threatens Last Highway Out

NASA Worldview

Canadian Interagency Fire Center

Massive Wildfires Burn From California to the Arctic Ocean as Temperature Records Shatter

Record heavy precipitation and cooler conditions across Western North America earlier this year have again given way to record warmth as a strong high pressure ridge and associated extreme Pacific and Arctic Ocean surface temperatures have ushered in blazing heat and multiplying wildfires.

In California, massive wildfires have forced nearly 5,000 people to evacuate. In British Columbia, 14,000 have fled as more than 1,000 firefighters battle numerous large blazes. And along coastal Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territory, large wildfires are burning near the shores of an, until recently frozen, Arctic Ocean.

(Large wildfires spill plumes of smoke over major sections of North America on July 11, 2017. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

In the U.S., the Whittier fire, which forced mandatory evacuations in southern California, is now 48 percent contained after having burned 12,000 acres. In the north of the state, near Oroville, the Alamo fire is 65 percent contained at 28,000 acres and evacuation orders have been lifted.

As large fires continue to burn across the west, the U.S. Interagency Fire Center now has a stated national preparedness level of 4 out of 5 — or the second highest alert rating. So far 2017 has seen 3,593,000 acres burned in the U.S. — which is above the 10 year average. An average that has already been pushed higher due to human-forced warming and an overall lengthening of the fire season.

Further north, British Columbia is suffering a rash of severe fires as extreme heat and high winds are blasting away at vegetation that vigorously regrew when drought conditions retreated earlier this year. Now, 215 active fires are reported as the province mobilizes national military forces and considers making calls for international aid. Presently, 21 large fires are causing considerable havoc throughout BC. Fire officials remain on heightened alert as strong winds, heat, and lightning threaten to make a bad fire situation even worse over the coming days.

Still further north and extending all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, satellite photographs provided by NASA show large wildfires burning through typically frozen regions of Canada’s Northwest Territory and in northern Alaska. Many of these fires are quite vigorous — producing large smoke plumes that have blanked much of the region.

(Fires burning near the Arctic Ocean on July 10, 2017. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 280 miles. Image source: NASA Worldview.)

Such widespread burning over such a large region of North America — extending from California to the Arctic Ocean — has been spurred primarily by record heat building beneath a massive high pressure ridge. In the far North, temperatures approached 90 degrees Fahrenheit just south of the Mackenzie Delta near the Arctic Ocean earlier this week. Over typically cool British Columbia, temperatures have consistently ranged in the 80s and 90s and are expected to continue to hit near the 90 degree mark this week. And in the U.S. Southwest, numerous temperature records were broken over recent days as readings rocketed into the 100s and 110s.

Both the heat and these massive fires have likely been made worse by human caused climate change. Overall, global temperatures have recently hit around 1.2 C above 1880s averages. As a result, over 80 percent of the globe, heatwaves are both more severe and more likely to occur. Meanwhile, due to climate change related factors, the western wildfire season in the U.S. is now 105 days longer than it was in 1970 — just 47 years ago. Arctic sea ice retreat in recent years has likely accompanied further warming of the far northern land masses which have also seen increasingly severe wildfires over permafrost zones.

Links:

Wildfires in Canada, California Force Thousands to Evacuate

BC Wildfire Status — All Eyes on the Weather

Canadian Interagency Fire Center

National Interagency Fire Center

NASA Worldview

Earth Nullschool

Climate Change is Tipping Scales Toward More Wildfires

Unprecedented Climate Extremes

Unprecedented Wildfires Over Canada and Siberia

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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

Record Heat Predicted for Fort McMurray Wednesday as Fire Danger Spikes

Just a little more than one year after freakish global warming-spurred wildfires forced a near complete evacuation of the tar sands production town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, record heat and extreme fire hazard are again settling in over this subarctic region.

(Subarctic sections of Alberta are expected to experience temperatures in the upper 80s and lower 90s [F] tomorrow. Such heat is expected to spike fire dangers throughout the region. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The weather forecast for Wednesday, May 31, 2017 tells a story of predicted extreme heat for a typically cool region of Northwest Canada. High temperatures for the day are expected to range from 86 to 90 F (30 to 32 C). That’s a hot day anywhere. But it’s particularly impressive for a region that shares a common climate with places like historically cold Alaska and Hudson Bay.

Average high temperatures for Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada for this time of year typically top out at a rather cool 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 C) — closer to the expected Wednesday morning low of 62 F (17 C). Wednesday’s forecast high, meanwhile, is quite considerably outside the normal range and exceeds 30 year averages by fully 22 to 26 degrees F. If such heat does emerge, it will tie or break the 2007 all-time record for May 31 of 86 F (30 C).  Such record heat is now predicted to occur after today’s expected, well above average, high of 80 F (26 C).

(A spike in fire hazard early this week coincides with predicted record temperatures across Alberta. Image source: Alberta Fire.)

Unseasonable warmth — which deepened over the weekend and is expected to peak by Wednesday — is presently resulting in spiking fire dangers for the region. According to the government of Alberta, fire risk for Fort McMurray is now listed as very high through Wednesday due to above average to near record high temperatures and low humidity. Fire hazard for a large swath of Northern Alberta is now also rated very-high-to-extreme.

It is worth noting that the overall fire situation for Canada to-date is presently much-improved from 2016. Last year, outlandish warmth combined with high winds and dry conditions to fuel an unusually large fire outbreak over Central and Northwestern Canada during early May. This year, wetter than normal conditions have suppressed fire activity over much of Canada over the same seasonal period. And we have some regions in British Columbia that are now experiencing evacuations due flooding rivers.

(Wildfires are flaring over British Columbia even as rapidly rising temperatures are causing large snow packs to melt far more swiftly than normal. Such heat and rapid melt is producing a dual threat of flood and fire at the same time. Image source: BC Wildfire Service.)

Rising fire risks coinciding with hot and dry conditions are coming at the same time that this year’s moisture-engorged snow packs are melting at far faster than normal rates. Large fires are thus breaking out in British Columbia and along the Alberta border as heat and dryness spread northward even as creek and lake levels in places like Okanagan, BC are facing the highest flood stages ever recorded.

Overall, despite 2017’s rainy spring weather, the tale is still one of unusual warmth. May temperatures have ranged from 2 to 6 degrees Celsius above average over Northern and Central Canada during 2017. Such departures are in keeping with the ongoing trend of rapid warming in the upper Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. A trend that has considerably worsened overall fire hazard by lengthening the fire season, by adding new fuels for fires, and by increasing the number of lightning strikes which help to provide ignition sources for wildfires. A warming that is directly caused by ongoing human fossil fuel burning and by related activities such as the tar sands extraction that continues unabated in Alberta.

(UPDATED)

Links:

Earth Nullschool

Fort McMurray Weather

Weather Underground: Fort McMurray Climate

Alberta Fire

BC Wildfire Service

Thousands Forced to Evacuate Fort McMurray Due to Wildfires

Wildfires, Rising Water Levels Hamper Okanagan

Earth Observatory

Hauntingly Freakish Siberian Wildfires Now Flicker to Life in April

This past winter has been ridiculously warm for large sections of Siberia. From the Yamal Peninsula to Lake Baikal to the thinning ice of the Arctic Ocean and back down to the Sea of Okhotsk, temperatures have ranged from 4 to nearly 7 degrees Celsius above normal throughout the entire first quarter of 2017.

(4th Consecutive year of extreme Siberian cold season warmth brings with it the heightened risk of early wildfires. Image source: NASA GISS.)

Climate reanalysis shows these far above average temperatures extending well into April. And, as a result, the Arctic chill that typically settles over this often-frozen region has been greatly reduced throughout winter and on into early spring.

2017 marks the 4th consecutive year of excessive winter warmth for this section of our world. A human-emissions-driven rise of abnormal heat that brings with it consistently earlier thaws, disruptive permafrost melt, and the freeing of new, deep-running, peat-like fuels for wildfires. A fuel that can smolder on through winter to again mar the land with new surface fires once the thin covering of snow draws back. An event that is occurring earlier and earlier as the decades and the great outpourings of oil, gas, and coal based carbon into the atmosphere wear on.

(Multiple wildfires and hotspots visible in this Sunday, April 22nd LANCE MODIS satellite shot of Siberia.)

On Saturday, April 22nd, the same day that tens of thousands of people marched to support climate scientists besieged by amoral corporate and political powers linked to the fossil fuel industry, multiple small fires flared along the thawing edge of that greatly warmed Siberia. A number of the more western blazes, intense enough to emit smoke plumes visible in these LANCE-MODIS satellite shots, appeared to have already expanded to over 1,000 acres.

By Sunday, the fires sparking closer to Lake Baikal further east had also grown their own series of tell-tale smoke plumes. One particular blaze in central Siberia appeared to have produced a 2.5 x 6 mile long burn scar in just one day (about 10,000 acres).

(40×60 mile section of Central Siberia on April 23 of 2017 shows large wildfires burning near the thaw line. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

This year’s early wildfire eruption in Siberia comes after 2014, 2015, and 2016 wildfire outbreaks during similar timeframes and following similarly abnormal warm periods. These fires tended to crop up south of Lake Baikal or closer to the China-Russia border. This year, the early fire outbreak appears to have emerged both further north and generally along a wider expanse than during past years.

If past years are any guide, we can expect the present fire season’s early start to produce blazes that continue through September and that peak sometime during late June through August. The fires will tend to be very large and will probably range as far north as the Arctic Ocean.

(By summer, wildfires in Siberia are now capable of repeatedly producing massive smoke plumes like this 2,500 mile long monstrosity that was visible from 1 million miles away in space during a 2014 event. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

These fires will gain ignition from new Arctic thunderstorms. They will be fed by new fuels such as thawing permafrost and trees harmed by northward invading species or by climates warming at rates far faster than they can handle.  And they will be capable of casting off gigantic smoke plumes that encircle the higher latitude reaches of the globe.

Instances of this kind are the upshot of new climate change related impacts. We wouldn’t have expected such a vast amount of Arctic and near Arctic burning over a 5 month fire season during the 19th or 20th Centuries. But the new very large cold-region fire outbreaks are happening in a world at around 1.2 C hotter than 1880s averages and warming. And, unfortunately, if we keep warming, we can expect a considerable worsening of these already troubling events.

Links:

NASA GISS

LANCE MODIS

Siberian Wildfires in April

Tens of Thousands turn out for Science March

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Florida Emergency Declared as More Than 100 Wildfires Burn Across the State

The effects of global warming on temperature, precipitation levels, and soil moisture are turning many of our forests into kindling during wildfire season.The Union of Concerned Scientists

*****

Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency yesterday as a deepening drought and above average temperatures sparked a large wildfire outbreak.

(Florida is now under a state of emergency due to widespread wildfires.)

Over 100 wildfires across the state have now burned 20,000 acres, destroyed 19 homes, and blanketed dense population centers like Orlando with smoke. Moderate to severe drought conditions cover 42 percent of the state. And the result is the worst fire season since 2011 — a record outbreak for Florida which burned over 200,000 acres during the year.

So far for 2017, about 2.5 times the area of land that burns during a usual wildfire season by mid April has already been consumed.  Fires are now burning from one end of Florida to the other:

“From St. George Island in the Panhandle to a wildfire just north of one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions in Orlando, we’re seeing that every area of our state is susceptible to wildfire,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said.

(Moderate to severe drought across 42 percent of Florida is increasing fire risk. The dry season for this region typically lasts until June when Atlantic moisture arrives — bringing with it more frequent thunderstorms. Image source: The U.S. Drought Monitor.)

Florida wildfire season typically runs year-round. However, January to June sees higher fire risk as drier conditions settle in. Summer rains tend to tamp down fires during the hotter months as oceanic and gulf moisture flows increase.

This year, record to near record warm sea surface conditions in the Gulf of Mexico have helped to lock in warmer to much warmer than average temperatures over Florida from January to April. These warmer than normal temperatures have helped to promote drought onset during the dry season.

(As global temperatures have increased, so too have the number of acres burned by wildfires. Image source: US EPA.)

Climate change also plays a role by increasing rates of drought onset, by pushing average temperatures higher, and by generally amplifying wildfire risk. Like many places, Florida has probably been rendered more vulnerable to wildfires by a warming primarily brought on by fossil fuel burning. And it is also a sad irony that the present Governor has outlawed the use of the words climate change in government communications due to a harmful political ideology which has decided to deny the basic science of human-caused warming (Trump has issued similar gag orders). A backward and reactionary policy that renders Florida less able to mitigate and respond to disasters related to human-caused climate change.

Presently, drought conditions are not as intense as those that contributed to the severe 2011 wildfire outbreak. However, forecasters are calling for little rain over the coming week and continued warm to warmer than normal weather. If this weather continues, the present Florida drought is likely to worsen — along with the fire risk.

(UPDATED)

Links:

The U.S. Drought Monitor

Florida Governor Declares State of Emergency as Destructive Wildfires Rage Across State

Polk County Emergency Management

Florida Wildfire State of Emergency

Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Fire Risks?

March Climate Madness — Wildfires, Scorching Summer Heat Strike Central and Southwestern U.S. By Winter’s End

In Colorado today the news was one of fire. There, a wildfire just south of Boulder had forced emergency officials to evacuate 1,000 residents as more than 2,000 others were put on alert Sunday. Smoke poured into neighborhoods as dead trees killed by invasive beetles or a developing drought, exploded into flames. Depleted snowpacks along the front range of the Rockies combined with temperatures in the 80s and 90s on Sunday to increase the fire risk. Thankfully, so far, there have been no reports of injuries or property loss. A relieving contrast to the massive fires recently striking Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma — where farmers and communities are still recovering.

(The ignition source for the recent fire near Boulder appears to be due to human activity. But the on-the ground climate conditions enhancing tree deaths, reducing snow packs, and blanketing the region with record or near record heat increases the likelihood that a spark will turn into a dangerous fire.)

The record heat building into Colorado on Sunday and contributing to increased wildfire risk had spread up into the Central U.S. from the Desert Southwest. There, cities like Phoenix have experienced summer-like heat for at least the past week. On Sunday, the city saw a second day of record temperatures as the mercury hit 96 degrees (Fahrenheit). Saturday temperatures were almost as hot at 95 F. This was the 8th consecutive day of 90 degree (F) or hotter temperatures (the record stretch of 90 degree + readings for March was set in 1972 at 17 days). Meanwhile, forecast highs in the mid 90s for Phoenix today set the possibility for another record-breaker.

Much of the southwest also experienced record or near-record temperatures. Las Vegas broke new records Sunday as the thermometer struck past 90 (F). Meanwhile, Yuma broke its previous daily record high on Sunday as temperatures rocketed to 98 F.

(Extreme heat builds through the Central and Southwest U.S. on monday as a wildfire forces evacuations south of Boulder, Colorado. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Today, heat is also expected to again build into the central U.S. as parts of Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado are predicted to experience temperatures ranging from the upper 80s to well into the mid 90s. Pecos is expected to hit 96 F — which is about 20 degrees (F) above average for a typical March day. And in some regions, such as parts of Kansas, these temperature departures are as much as 25 F above normal. These extreme high temperatures are expected to break numerous records for the region as most of the previous record highs for this area range in the upper 80s.

The heat will bring with it more risk of wildfires and a front sweeping in on Tuesday could increase windspeeds and dry conditions for some regions. Record warm global temperatures, (spurred by human greenhouse gas emissions primarily coming from fossil fuel burning) which are aiding in the systemic, longer term, loss of ice and snow cover while increasing the rate at which drought sets in and spiking the top potential range of temperatures during heatwaves, appears to be combining with a post La Nina trend that typically favors heat and drying in the Central U.S. to set the stage for these extreme conditions.

Links:

Fire Near Boulder Forces Evacuations

Drought Monitor

Will Phoenix Break Heat Records for Three Days in a Row?

Record Heat: Hot Temperatures Continue Today

Climate Reanalyzer

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to Robert Prue

Largest Winter Wildfire in Kansas History Probably Linked to Climate Change

Over the past few days, a 1.5 million acre (2,350 square mile) swath of the Central U.S. has burned. The wildfires, stoked by warm winds, prodigious undergrowth, and a nascent mid-western drought exploded across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Six people have perished, numerous structures have been destroyed, and thousands of people have been forced to evacuate. According to initial reports, the losses in the form of cropland burned and livestock consumed by the flames are expected to be significant.

(Large wildfires and massive burn scars are clearly visible in this March 7 NASA satellite shot of North Texas, the Oklahoma Pan-Handle and Southern Kansas. For reference, bottom edge of frame is approximately 120 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

For Kansas, a single blaze covering 1,000 square miles was likely the largest fire ever to strike the state. Meanwhile, similar enormous fires ripped through nearby Oklahoma and North Texas (see satellite image above). Though more favorable weather conditions for firefighting are on the way, concerns remain that the fires could continue to grow throughout the weekend.

It is not an unheard of event for wildfires to strike the plains states during winter. However, the rising frequency and intensity of large fires during recent years has been a cause for growing concern among climate researchers. And though humans and lightning strikes often provide the ignition sources for the wildfires that do occur, it is the underlying heat and drought conditions which can cause a wildfire to explode into an out of control monstrosity when such an ignition inevitably occurs. To this point, it’s worth noting that a similar large wildfire outbreak occurred during the winter of 2010-2011 — a time when near record warmth combined with drought to scorch 4,000 square miles in Texas and Arizona. And we should also note that global warming will tend to bring on these wildfire favorable conditions with increasing frequency and intensity.

(Near record warmth and below average precipitation over the past month set the stage for extreme wildfire risks this week. Increasingly, such anomalously warm temperatures and rapid onset drought conditions are driven by human-caused climate change. Image source: NOAA.)

This year, similar climate change related conditions set the stage for this past week’s dangerous outbreak. And though some researchers consider the fire regime in this region of the U.S. during this time of year to be cyclical in nature (possibly driven at least in part by the ENSO cycle), the added heat and increasing risk of intensifying drought periods due to climate change plays a role in the worsening fire regime as well.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfire season in the Western U.S. has already grown from 5 months per year to 7+ months per year due to rising temperatures. This added heat and related expansion of the wildfire season has helped to increase the average number of large fires burning during any given year in this region from approximately 140 per year during the 1980s to 250 per year from the period of 2000 to 2012.

(Union of Concerned Scientists graphic shows stark wildfire trend for the Western U.S. A trend that is being repeated in many regions across the country due to climate change’s rising temperatures and increasingly intense precipitation extremes. See full infographic here: Union of Concerned Scientists.)

For the Central U.S. the story is much the same as researchers have warned that the frequency and intensity of wildfires likely would continue to increase in the coming years, given the confluence of climate change related factors such as higher temperatures and lower rainfall amounts. In Phys.org today, University of Illinois atmospheric sciences professor Don Wuebbles noted that increasingly intense wildfires are:

“…Probably… the new normal. Thirty years from now, we may look upon this as being a much better period than what we may be facing then.”

Links:

LANCE MODIS

NOAA

Union of Concerned Scientists

A Look at Questions About Current Wildfires

At Least 6 People Have Died in Plains Wildfires

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

“Surreal” U.S. Wildfires Should Not be Burning in Mid-November

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.

appalachian-wildfires

(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.”

Further north, wildfires have also sparked in New Hampshire, New York and North Dakota.

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.

unseasonable-warmth-blankets-north-america

(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.

Links/Notes:

Stu Ostro

LANCE MODIS

Climate Reanalyzer

United States Drought Monitor

The National Inter-agency Fire Center

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.

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

Climate Change, Drought Fan Massive Sand Fire, Forcing 20,000 Californians to Flee

On Friday, amidst temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and at a time when California is now entering its fifth year of drought in a decade when seven out of the last ten years have been drought years, a rapidly growing and dangerous wildfire erupted in the hills north of Los Angeles.

(Sand Fire looms over Santa Clarita, California. Video source: Sand Fire Time Lapse.)

The Sand Fire, which some firefighters are calling practically unprecedented, sparked before typical wildfire season peak and began a rapid spread that consumed 10,000 acres per day from Friday through early Monday. Nearly 3,000 firefighters scrambled to gain a foothold against the blaze, but were somewhat unprepared as contracted water-bomb aircraft from Canada won’t be available until next month, during what is usually the worst part of fire season. The aircraft assistance was planned as extra fire-suppression capability for Santa Clarita, but typical fire threat and risk assessments no longer hold much water in an era where human-forced climate change is pushing temperatures and drought conditions to new extremes across California.

By Monday, the fire had exploded to 33,000 acres (51 square miles). In total, 18 buildings are now reported to have burned and more than 10,000 others have been evacuated. A population the size of a small city, 20,000 people, have now been displaced by this rapidly expanding wildfire. Due to heroic efforts by firefighters, an estimated 2,000 homes have been saved so far. Sadly, the fire has also now claimed a life.

California Wildfires July 24

(Smoke plumes from large wildfires burning over southern and western California, framed by a warming Pacific Ocean, a drying Central Valley, and what appear to be snow-free and bone-dry Sierra Nevada Mountains in this July 24 LANCE MODIS satellite shot.)

Continued hot temperatures and 30-mile-per-hour winds are expected to continue to fan the fire today, which as of this writing is just 10 percent contained. If the worst case is realized and this fire continues to expand out of control, as many as 45,000 homes may ultimately be forced to evacuate. Such an evacuation would be comparable in scale to the Fort McMurray Fire which raged through Alberta during May and forced more than 90,000 people to flee.

Conditions in Context — Living in a Fire Age

There is widespread geological evidence of voracious fires burning through large regions of the globe during past hothouse warming events. At the Paleocene-Eocene boundary 56 million years ago, a warming rate that was about ten times slower than what we are experiencing now set off immense blazes that ripped through the world’s peatlands and forests. In other words, evidence points to past instances of Earth warming into hothouse conditions generating periods of intense fires that may well be called fire ages. Today, the Earth is about 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than during the late 19th century. This high temperature departure combines with a very rapid rate of continued warming to dramatically increase wildfire risks around the globe.

Drought Climate Change

(Conditions related to climate change continue to increase drought frequency across the U.S. West. For the past five years, California has seen the brunt of this predicted increasing drought trend as a result of human-forced warming. Image source: US Drought Monitor.)

More local to the Sand Fire, California is in a zone that global climate models have long predicted would suffer from severe heat and drought as a result of fossil-fuel burning and related human-forced warming. This year’s persistent above-average temperatures on the back of five years of drought have greatly increased wildfire risk for the state. Millions of trees now stand dead, surrounded by withered vegetation in a heating and drying land — a vast range of additional fuel that is ever more vulnerable to ignition.

Not only do these conditions generate a higher risk of extreme fires during fire season — sparking blazes like June’s Erskine Fire which burned 200 homes and was the most destructive fire in this California county’s history — but they also increasingly spark large wildfires out of season. It’s a set of conditions that basically generates a year-round fire season for the state, even as it also sparks winter wildfires at far-flung locations around the world.

Links/Attribution/Statements

10,000 Homes Evacuated Due to Wildfire

Sand Fire Map

Sand Fire Time Lapse

Omens of a Fiery Future

US Drought Monitor

29 Million Trees Died in California this Year

Climate Models Predict US Megadrought

Hat tip to DT Lange

From the Arctic to Africa to the Amazon, More Troubling Signs of Earth Carbon Store Instability

The time for debate is over. The time for rapid response is now. The Earth System just can’t take our fossil-fueled insults to her any longer.

*****

Arctic Wildfires

(These Arctic and Siberian wildfires just keep getting worse and worse, but what’s really concerning is they’re burning a big hole through one of the Earth’s largest carbon sinks, and as they do it, they’re belching out huge plumes of greenhouse gasses. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Carbon Spikes over the Arctic, Africa, and the Amazon

Today, climate change-enhanced wildfires in Siberia and Africa are belching out two hellaciously huge smoke clouds (see images below). They’re also spewing large plumes of methane and carbon dioxide, plainly visible in the global atmospheric monitors. Surface methane readings in these zones exceed 2,000 parts per billion, well above the global atmospheric average.

Even as the fires rage, bubbles of methane and carbon dioxide are reportedly seeping up from beneath the tundra — generating big blisters of these heat-trapping gasses that are causing sections of the Arctic soil to jiggle like jelly. Greenhouse gas content in the blisters is, according to this Siberian Times report, 7,500 parts per million CO2 and 375 parts per million methane. That’s about 19 times current atmospheric CO2 levels and 200 times current atmospheric methane levels. Overall, these carbon jiggle mats add to reports of methane bubbling up from Arctic lakes, methane blowholes, and methane bubbling up from the Arctic Ocean in a context of very rapid Arctic warming.

Surface Methane

(Methane spikes over Siberia, Africa and the Amazon correlate with wildfires and extreme drought conditions associated with human-forced climate change. Add in carbon dioxide spikes over the same regions of Africa and the Amazon and it begins to look like a visible amplifying feedback signal. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)

Meanwhile, a global warming-enhanced drying of the Amazon rainforest appears to be squeezing a substantial amount of these hothouse gasses into the Earth’s atmosphere. Copernicus Observatory surface monitors indicate pools of 600 to 800 parts per million CO2 concentrations near and around the Amazon rainforest. These 100- to 200-mile-wide spikes in CO2 concentration are 1.5 to 2 times current atmospheric concentrations. These very high CO2 levels occur even as methane readings over the Amazon are also abnormally high, a possible precursor signal that the NASA-predicted Amazon rainforest wildfires this summer may be starting to ignite.

Any one of these instances might be cause for some concern. Taking all these various observations together looks like a clear signal that the Earth is starting to produce an increasingly strong carbon feedback response to human-forced warming. If true, that’s some pretty terrible news.

Human-Forced Warming Warps the Carbon Cycle

Each summer, the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere take a big breath. In the warmer airs, leaves unfurl, grasses grow, and all kinds of CO2-respiring organisms take hold. Together, they produce a frenzy of activity, a riot of life gathering great stores of energy for the next plunge into winter. Over time, this natural capture of CO2 stores this atmospheric carbon in plant matter that ultimately becomes soil, permafrost, or is buried in the Earth in the form of various hydrocarbon stores.

It’s this annual great growth and greening that, in large part, drives the seasonal up-and-down swings of the global carbon cycle — a cycle that, under stable conditions, would generate an annual wave in atmospheric CO2 concentrations running over a long-term flat line.

Surface carbon dioxide

(Surface CO2 readings show boreal forest uptake of CO2 over Siberia, Scandinavia, and parts of North America. Note the CO2 surface hot-spots over the fire zones in Central Africa and over the drought-stricken Amazon rainforest. Image source: Copernicus Observatory.)

Ever since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, human fossil-fuel burning has been adding carbon to the atmosphere. The result is that these seasonal swings, driven by plant respiration, have overlaid a significant upward trend in atmospheric carbon, one that this year pushed peak atmospheric CO2 values to near 408 parts per million. This is a level not seen in about 15 million years.

That increase in its turn has dramatically warmed the Earth — a result that has its own larger impact on plants, on the cycles that influence their ability to take in carbon, and even on the older carbon that was long ago stored in plants but is now sequestered in the soil, permafrost and oceans.

Amazon Drought Africa and Siberia Burning

(LANCE MODIS satellite shot shows extensive wildfires spewing large plumes of smoke over Siberia and Africa. Meanwhile, very dry conditions in the Amazon appear to be generating understory fires even as carbon is baked out of the Equatorial soil. Click image to zoom in.)

Warm the world up, as humans have, and you generate what, in scientific parlance, is a carbon feedback. Overall, the ocean can take in less atmospheric carbon and increasingly bubbles with thawing methane, the soils can store less carbon even as more is baked out in the heat, the plants and peats on balance burn more than grow, permafrost thaws and releases its own carbon. It is this carbon-cycle response to warming that is expected to add more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere on top of that already being released through the harmful processes of fossil-fuel extraction and burning.

Warming Forces More Carbon Out of Lands and Seas, Keeps More in the Atmosphere — But How Much is Still Pretty Uncertain

How much heat-trapping carbon the Earth System will ultimately add to human fossil-fuel emissions is kind of a big scientific question, which is answered in large part by how much fossil fuels humans ultimately burn and how much heat is ultimately added to the Earth’s oceans, glaciers, and atmosphere.

Climate Change Impact on CO2 Simulations

(A sampling of climate model-projected Earth System CO2 feedbacks to human-forced climate change. Note the high level of variation in the model projections. It’s also worth noting that these model projections did not include difficult-to-assess permafrost and hydrate responses to warming over the period through 2100. Image source: IPCC AR 4 — Coupled Climate-Carbon Cycle Projections.)

Back in 2007, the IPCC estimated that around 87 parts per million of additional CO2 would be added to the world’s airs by 2100 (under an apparent assumed final human-driven CO2 accumulation of 700 ppm) as a result of this kind of carbon feedback to human warming. This implied about a 20-percent positive CO2 feedback to warming. However, the model projections were wide-ranging (from 4 to 44 percent) and the overall assessment drew criticism due to a lack of inclusion of permafrost and hydrate feedback estimates.

In 2012, the IPCC produced a more uncertain, complex, and unclear set of projections that notably didn’t include permafrost carbon feedback or methane hydrate feedback model projections, the scientific understanding of which is apparently still developing. But despite a good deal of specific-issue uncertainty, the consensus appeared to state that over the medium- (21st century) and long-terms (multi-century), we’d have a significant amount of extra carbon coming from the Earth System as a result of responses to a human-warmed atmosphere and ocean.

Smoke From African Wildfires

(African wildfires, whose smoke plumes are visible here, are just one of many sources of carbon spikes around the globe triggered by human-forced climate change. Amazon rainforest next? NASA seems to think so. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Overall, there’s a decent amount of support for the notion that the Earth System is pretty sensitive to warming, that it tends to respond to even a relatively small amount of initial incoming heat in ways that produce a good deal of extra carbon in the atmosphere. After all, only a small change in the way sunlight hits the Earth is enough to end an ice age and pump an additional 100 parts per million of CO2 out of the Earth’s carbon stores as a result. The added heat forcing provided by the current human fossil-fuel emission is far, far greater than the one that ended the last ice age.

It is in this understanding and context that we should consider what appears to be an increasing number of Earth System responses to a human-forced warming that has currently exceeded 1 degree Celsius above 1880s averages. It’s easy to envision that these responses would grow in number and intensity as the Earth continues to warm toward 2 C above 19th-century averages.

Links/Attribution/Statements

LANCE MODIS

Coupled Carbon Climate Cycle Projections

Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles

Arctic Methane Bubbles are Leaking 200 Times Above Normal

The Copernicus Observatory

The Keeling Curve

Hat tip to TodaysGuestis

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Scores of City-Sized Siberian Wildfires Spew 2,500 Mile-Long Plume of Smoke Over Northern Hemisphere

Today’s satellite pass by NASA’s LANCE MODIS array tells a dire story that practically no one in the global mainstream media is talking about. Northern and Central Siberia is burning. Scores of massive fires, some the size of cities and small states, are throwing off a great pall of smoke 2,500 miles long.

The vast boreal forests are lighting off like climate-change-enhanced natural fireworks. The tundra and permafrost lands — some of them frozen for hundreds of thousands to millions of years — are thawing and igniting. But for all of the loudly roaring fires, most of the major media reporting agencies have thus far produced only deafening silence.

Country-Sized Swath of Siberia is Covered With Wildfires

Massive Siberian Wildfires

(Large sections of Russia and Eastern Europe are blanketed by smoke from massive Siberian wildfires in today’s LANCE MODIS satellite shot.)

Imagine an enormous rectangle. At its northwestern end is the Yamal Peninsula and the shores of the Arctic Ocean. At its southeastern end is Lake Baikal, nearly 2,000 miles away. The vast expanse between is littered with fires. Some of these fires are relatively small. But others are vast, sporting firefronts 20-25 miles wide and revealing individual burn scars that, according to unconfirmed satellite analysis, appear to cover as much as 400 square miles of land.

And it’s not just a case of a smattering of these fires burning across the broad region. Rather, these massive fires are burning in multiple clusters, some of which would easily cover a region the size of the US state of South Carolina. The below image is a 300-by-220-mile box showing a section of North Central Arctic Siberia between north latitudes 58.5 and 66.2. Note that a significant portion of the land area in this satellite capture is covered by very large fires.

South Carolina Sized Siberian Region covered in smoke and flame

(Extensive swath of fires burn over North Central Siberia. Image shows a 300-by-220-mile area. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

These very large fires are vigorously burning in a contiguous permafrost zone of Siberia. During recent years, as human fossil-fuel burning has continued to warm the Earth, such fires have become more and more common. Burning not only forest, the fires have also consumed duff, peat, and, increasingly, recently thawed sections of the permafrost. Though these fires are now in the process of activating a very large northern carbon store, and though such an event represents a dangerous amplifying feedback to human-forced warming, their occurrence and extent has been greatly underreported by the Russian government.

Fires Burning Near Yamal, Frozen Methane Deposits, Fossil Fuel Production Infrastructure

Further north, even the typically hard-frozen tundra regions are burning. Near the town of Nuya, along Obskaya Bay just east of Yamal, Russia and located in the fossil fuel development zone between north latitudes 66 and 67.3, enormous fires are raging. Like the recent Fort McMurray fire, these blazes appear to be burning near fossil fuel infrastructure and development zones.

Fires near Nuya Russia

(Large fires on the shores of Obskaya Bay in Northwestern Russia on July 18, 2016. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

The Yamal region was also the location of the recent, and controversial, methane blowholes. The region sits over large gas deposits, some of which are in the form of clathrate. And some of the previously stable frozen deposits appear to be facing an increasing release pressure due to thawing, the invasion of warm liquid water into the subterranean environment, and, at the near-surface region, lightning strikes (which were previously unheard of in this zone) and wildfire pressure.

Up to 40-F-Above-Average Temperatures Blanket the Northern Fire Zone

Today, a good number of these fires burn north of the farthest northern extent of the Siberian tree line in 77 to 86 degrees F (25 to 30 C) temperatures. For some regions, these temperatures are 30 to 40 degrees F (17 to 22 C) above average. At the northwestern end of the vast, fire-marred range that now covers a land area larger than most countries, temperatures near the Arctic Ocean shore at 70.9° N, 81.4° E are 86 degrees F (30 C) — about 40 degrees F (22 C) above average. Not far away, the wildfires in the above image burn.

86 Degrees Near Arctic Ocean

(Extreme heat in the range of 30 to 40 degrees F above average temperatures [17 to 22 C] near Arctic Ocean shores greatly increases Arctic wildfire risk. Such extreme heat is related to human-forced climate change. As the Arctic warms at a rate two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, such fire-hazard and related potential for worsening amplifying feedbacks is also likely to increase. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Despite increasing prevalence and extent, Siberian wildfires have continued to be underreported during recent years, despite the fact that out of all major Arctic permafrost and boreal forest regions — Alaska, Canada, and Siberia — Siberia has shown the visibly greatest increase in wildfire frequency and extent. This is likely due, in part, to a now-documented underreporting of wildfire extent by the Russian government.

Links/Attribution/Statements

Earth Nullschool

LANCE MODIS

Yamal Map

Methane Blow Holes

Russia Significantly Under-Reporting Wildfires

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Jim Benison

Massive Wildfires Erupt Near Russia-China Border — Lake Baikal Blazes Ignite

As human fossil fuel emissions force the world to warm, moisture and precipitation levels are changing. Wet areas become wetter.  Dry areas become drier. Spring and Summer temperatures increase. And earlier spring snow-melt causes soils to remain drier for longer periods, increasing incidents of drought while lengthening the wildfire season. These hot, dry conditions also increase the likelihood that, once wildfires are started by lightning strikes or human error, they will become more intense, larger and long-burning (paraphrase of this Union of Concerned Scientists Report).

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An extreme heatwave and drought in East Asia is now sparking extraordinarily large wildfires in the Amur region of Russia just across the border with China. The massive fires are plainly visible in the LANCE-MODIS satellite shot and include at least four contiguous fire zones. The fires each show very large burn scars with fire-fronts ranging from 10 to 40 miles across.

Massive Wildfires Amur Russia

Enter a caption

(Enormous wildfires burning along the Russia-China border on May 10th. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 600 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

A very large smoke plume cast off from these blazes is now visible in the MODIS satellite shot. It stretches away from the massive burn scars and on out into the Sea of Japan nearly 1,000 miles away. By comparison, smoke plume analysis hints that the Amur fires together now seem to dwarf the recent massive blaze that burned 2,400 structures in the Canadian town of Fort McMurray over the past week. Yet another instance of extraordinarily large fires burning in a world forced to warm by human fossil fuel emissions.

Thankfully, the Amur fires aren’t currently raging near any large settlements. So it is less likely that widespread loss of life or property has occurred as a result. International news media had no reports on the blazes (as of Tuesday), so little information is now available other than what can be discerned by NASA satellite map analysis.

In context, these fires ignited along a ridge zone that has featured extremely warm and dry temperatures. Rising off a heatwave that began in Southeast Asia, these warm airs are now expanding northward toward the Arctic and will, over the current week, contribute to an amazingly potent heatwave building over the rapidly thawing regions of our world. Ridge development in this zone has been quite persistent and we can expect continued large fires creeping north toward the Arctic.

Lake Baikal Fires Ignite

(Wildfires — indicated by red spots in the above map — are lighting off around the discontinuous permafrost zone near Lake Baikal. During recent years, this region of Russia has suffered from the kind of extreme drought and warming associated with human-caused climate change. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

This extremely hot and dry zone has also lit off numerous fires in the Lake Baikal region. Representing the furthest southern extent of the Northeast Asian permafrost zone, heat and thaw in the region due to global warming have resulted in increasing fire hazards. As with Northwest Canada, an unholy relationship exists between fires and thawing permafrost. The permafrost as it thaws and dries provides an understory fuel that aids in fire persistence and intensity — sometimes resulting in hotspots that smolder throughout the winter. And the fires can activate more and more of the permafrost layer below — pumping out additional carbon which can worsen the warming trend which ignited the fires in the first place.

For 2016, warm, dry ridge zones have tended to dominate both Western North America and Eastern Asia. And in a world that since the start of 2016 has been nearly 1.5 C above 1880s averages, we have seen a very intense early start to fire season featuring numerous very large fires in these zones. As May progresses into June, risks for even more intense fires increase even as the fire zone advances with the warm airs heading north toward the Arctic.

UPDATE: The Siberian Times is now reporting on large wildfires burning in the Amur region of Russia and near Lake Baikal. The Times relayed social media messages from villagers in the impacted regions stating:

‘Forests are burning!’, ‘Nothing to breathe in Bagdarin village!’, ‘Turka village is on fire!’

Those now familiar with scenes of the Fort McMurray fires will note a striking resemblance in some of the photos coming out from the Times today:

Buryatia Wildfires

(Severe boreal forest wildfire raging near a village in Buryatia, Russia yesterday bears an uncanny resemblance to the Fort McMurray Fire. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

The times notes that 11 structures have burned and more than 50 villagers have been evacuated. In total, more than 2,100 personnel are now involved in firefighting efforts in Amur, near the Trans-Baikal region, and in Buryatia. Russian officials note that some of these fires were ignited when locals burned grass to clear fields for farming. A tradition among Russians, the fire danger is now so intense due to changing conditions brought on by climate change, that officials have outlawed the practice. Resulting wildfires have, over recent years, consumed massive resources. So it’s understandable why Russian authorities are keen to reduce wildfire ignition sources.

That said, it is likely such laws are not enough to prevent the fires — which could also be ignited by lightning from more prevalent storm systems or by smoldering peat bogs which have become more and more involved in permafrost zone fire hazard increases during recent years.

(Article corrected to include an updated geo-location of fires very near the Chinese border, but on the Amur side in Russia.)

Links:

LANCE MODIS

The Copernicus Observatory

As the World Warms, Expect More Wildfires

Warm North Pacific Winds to Usher in Brutal Arctic Heatwave

Wildfires Rage in Siberia and Russian Far East

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to S.E.

“Please Get Us Out” — Hothouse Wildfire Threatens to Engulf Tar Sands City of Fort McMurray, 88,000 Evacuated, 1,600 Structures Burned

Emergency situation now ongoing in Fort McMurray, Alberta where a massive wildfire in this northern climate zone is engulfing the city. This is a very dangerous developing situation that includes hundreds of structure fires and what is now the largest evacuation in the history of Alberta — the first time an entire Canadian city has ever had to evacuate due to a wildfire. Frequent updates to follow (refresh page for new updates).

(BBC report on the latest news from Fort McMurray.)

Conditions Consistent With Climate Change Fan Massive Fire Invading City Made by Tar Sands Production

Monday, a massive wildfire began to encroach upon the City of Fort McMurray, Alberta — a region of Canada known for its production of the hothouse gas emitting tar sands. An emission that has almost certainly contributed to increasing fire danger to the city during recent years and decades as tar sands crude is one of the highest carbon fuels now in production (See: IPCC — How Climate Change is Worsening Wildfires).

The McMurray Fire slowly expanded over the weekend under unseasonably hot and dry conditions. It surprised fire officials by jumping the Athabasca River on Monday night and, with a switch in the wind toward the southwest, began to approach and invade northward into the city on Tuesday. By early evening Wednesday, the fire still raged out of control — swelling to more than 10,000 hectares as more than 1,600 buildings fell victim to the flames.

Reporter Reid Fiest in a tweet at 12:05 PM Wednesday briefly described what is now a city under existential threat:

The catastrophic wildfire is 10,000 ha and resisted all the suppression efforts. Today’s weather could cause explosive conditions.

And by 2:37 PM, fire activity within the city had become so intense that the roof of the Fort McMurray emergency operations center began to smolder and those working within were ordered to evacuate.

Extreme Temperatures in Northwest Canada

(It was hotter in Northwest Canada Tuesday than it was in the Central US. Extreme heat related to human-forced warming that contributed to a dangerous developing fire situation in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The southerly winds and hot airs fanning such explosive conditions ran up behind a high amplitude wave in the Jet Stream pushing temperatures into the upper 80s and lower 90s (F) — readings that are about 30-35 degrees (F) above average for this time of year — over a broad swath of Northwestern Canada on Tuesday. The heat-baked air wrung out moisture and drew humidity readings into the very dry 20 percent range. Similar extreme fire conditions continued into Wednesday — with temperatures in Fort McMurray hitting a very unseasonal 87 degrees — as the fire now burns through the city proper.

Clouds of My Grandchildren over Fort McMurray

Pyrocumulus cloud over Fort McMurray on Tuesday. Clouds of this kind can form in the strong updraft zone of powerful wildfires. During recent years, pyrocumulus formation over the Arctic and other northern regions during spring and summer has been very intense and widespread. A climate change enhanced phenomena that could rightly be called ‘The Clouds of My Grandchildren.’ Image source: Randy Vanberg.

To the north, a very early recession of sea ice in the Beaufort and an opening up of waters there likely assisted this Jet Stream anomaly, a related strong high pressure system, extreme high temperatures, and hot southerly winds that pushed fire conditions in Alberta to unprecedented levels. The south winds, far, far hotter than normal temperatures and very low humidity contributed to a very dangerous situation fanning flames as they encroached upon and invaded the city — burning structures, igniting oil fires and forcing motorists to abandon their vehicles. All while a massive pyrocumulus cloud expanded — casting a dark shadow and dumping soot over this bitumen-laden region of Alberta.

For this region of Canada, these are highly abnormal conditions consistent with weather pattern alterations forced by human-caused climate change. “This (fire) is consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change affecting our fire regime,” noted Mike Flannigan a wildfire researcher at the University of Alberta who was cited in a report on the climate context of the McMurray Fire on Wednesday.

All Fort McMurray City Residents Ordered to Flee

As of latest reports, all of Fort McMurray’s city proper has been placed under mandatory evacuation orders. That makes for a total of more than 88,000 people evacuated so far. Including outlying suburbs and migrant residents, the city likely is home to a total of more than 100,000 souls — a good number of whom will also be forced to leave. A fire-driven evacuation of this size — basically resulting in the mandatory emptying of an entire city — has never occurred before in the history of Alberta. And the odd nature of this event is magnified by the fact that a very large early May fire — a period when fire activity is typically far more quiescent — is the cause.

Please Get Us Out

(Abasand resident pleas for assistance as fires encroach.)

Many residents, like Jenine in the tweet above, had to scramble to vehicles as fires approached their neighborhoods on Tuesday, spurring some to turn to social media in order to plea for assistance. The proximity of the flames was so close that many residents were unable to bring any personal belongings. With the entire city being ordered to evacuate, both lanes of Highway 63 were used for outbound traffic. Even so, motorists remained stuck in gridlock or stop and go traffic and were forced to drive through billowing smoke and along beside the raging fires. Some vehicles stalled in the hot winds or simply ran out of gas — leaving highway 63 strewn with empty cars, trucks, and buses.

The flow of evacuees has been driven northward ahead of the fire. Emergency shelters have popped up all along route 63 with many tar sands workers hunkering down in camps within the hothouse fuels extraction zone itself. A region that may also fall under threat by the fire.

The closest tar sands facilities are located within 16 miles of the city center. However, fuels for the fires in the form of trees run right up to the edge of the industrial zone and southerly winds expected to continue through late morning on Thursday may drive the flames closer. After that time, a front sweeping in from the north should shift the wind direction to northwest — pushing the fires away from these facilities. Currently, the possibility of the fires affecting these facilities is low. However, both Shell and Suncor have now suspended operations — presenting a brief silver lining to an, overall, terrible situation.

Huge Mobilization Underway, But Much of the City May Succumb to the Fire

Firefighters, who early on Tuesday acknowledged the severity of the situation, are now scrambling to deal with numerous very large blazes raging throughout the town. Social media imagery now shows images of gas stations, stores, and homes being burned or left in ruins by the fires. As of current reports, more than 1,600 structures been destroyed by the flames. By 2:28 PM Wednesday, these included 70 percent of the homes in Beacon Hill, 50 percent of the homes in Abasand, 90 percent of the homes in Waterway, and about 60 other homes and additional structures lost throughout other sections of the city. Unfortunately, given the severity of the situation, the number of burned structures is likely to grow as Wednesday progresses into Thursday.

NASA Shot of Fort McMurray Fire

Large active fires running north of a huge, 15 kilometer, burn scar. Satellite shot of Fort McMurray Fire and burn scars posted in the NASA twitter feed on Wednesday afternoon.

Considering the massive pall of smoke covering Fort McMurray and the fact that firefighters have been overwhelmed by the intensity of the fires — leaving many structures to burn — the situation has run completely out of control. National officials are scrambling to allocate more resources to attempt to abate what is a very difficult and dangerous inferno. A national emergency has been declared and an outpouring of assistance and resources is now aimed in the direction of Fort McMurray. Reports as of Wednesday afternoon indicated that there were 250 firefighters on the ground in the fire zone with more on the way. And by evening a number of defensive fire breaks appear to have been cut in an attempt to control the blaze’s expansion.

However, with numerous other fires now raging throughout Canada and with fire conditions at extreme levels over such a large area, at least one province — British Columbia — is already at the limits of its fire suppression manpower and was unable to provide aid to Fort McMurray. As a result, Alberta officials are now coordinating with national and military firefighting forces as fires continue to expand through the city and along the Athabasca River.

Conditions in Context — More Tar Sands Burning Generates More Wildfire Risk

It’s true that the people of Fort McMurray have suffered enough from this disaster and that the people of Canada and the world should do their best to help them in their hour of need. However, one cannot look at the situation truthfully without taking into account the impact of the Canada’s tar sands upon what is now a broadening climate crisis.

For years and decades now, IPCC has been warning that increasing greenhouse gas emissions and related rising global temperatures will result in increasing, expanding, and extreme wildfire hazards. The region of Northwest Canada is particularly vulnerable due to the influence of sea ice melt on the local Jet Stream pattern and due to the fact that many plant species in the region are ill-adapted to warming temperatures making them far more vulnerable to wildfires. In addition, permafrost thaw in the Arctic zone provides peat-like fuels that add to the fire risk. An issue where the ground itself burns.

Failure to view the current crisis in Fort McMurray in the context of global temperatures that have now exceeded 1 C above preindustrial averages and in the context of a failure to halt tar sands extraction is a failure to view the situation realistically. Much talk has been made of getting Fort McMurray’s tar sands industry back on track. But it’s the tar sands that have greatly contributed to the intensity of the dangerous fire that is now threatening that city’s very existence. And it’s the tar sands that will produce far-flung harmful impacts affecting so, so many other cities around the world. Will Fort McMurray respond to their hour of need by finding a better way of doing business? Or is it all just still denial and doubling down in a way that hurts just about everyone involved?

(Best hopes and prayers to everyone involved in this terrible situation. Please stay safe and stay tuned to official broadcasts for updated information on fires and evacuations.)

Links:

Fort McMurray Homes Destroyed as Wildfire Forces Mandatory Evacuation Orders

Fort McMurray Residents take to Social Media as Situation Intensifies

Jenine’s Twitter Feed

Earth Nullschool

LANCE MODIS

Canadian Fire Danger Map

Fort McMurray Area Updates

It’s Apocalyptic. No Way out But North.

Here’s the Climate Context for the Fort McMurray Wildfire

Alberta Burning

Randy Vanberg

NASA Twitter Feed

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Mike Crews

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Redsky

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

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