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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

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Freak Wildfire Outbreak Strikes Northern Spain During Winter

Over the weekend an unexplained wildfire outbreak erupted across the Asturias and Cantabria regions of Northern Spain. In total, more than 100 blazes flared as 60 mile-per-hour winds and freakishly warm temperatures in the upper 60s to lower 70s (Fahrenheit — 15 to 20 degrees Celsius) spread across Spain’s northern coastal provinces.

(More than 140 active wildfires swept across Northern Spain over the weekend. Video Source.)

More than 200 firefighters responded to the strange outbreak — one all-too-certainly linked to record warm global temperatures in the range of 1.06 C above 1880s averages. Fortunately, there are currently no reports of injuries or loss of property or life. Just an odd and somewhat terrifying mass wildfire eruption occurring in typically damp North Spain at a time near the Winter Solstice.

Another Abnormal Winter Wildfire Event

Though the cause of these fires has yet to be officially determined, temperatures in the range of 9-18 degrees Fahrenheit (5-10 C) above average and very strong winds — gusting up to 60 miles per hour — likely contributed to this anomalous winter wildfire outbreak. This warm air flow was pulled northward along the eastern edge of a powerful Atlantic weather pattern that, through most of Fall and Winter, has been hurling strong storms into Iceland, coastal France, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia. These warm winds gained extreme intensity on Saturday and Sunday and likely sparked and fanned the wildfires (in much the same manner that Santa Anna winds risk wildfires in California).

image

(On Saturday and Sunday, powerful southerly winds and abnormally warm temperatures swept over Northern Spain — setting the stage for a freak mass wildfire outbreak during winter time. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

It is not usual at all for wildfires to occur during Winter anywhere in Spain, especially not along the northern coastal regions where cool, wet weather tends to prevail as December transitions into January. But this year the typical rainfall pattern has been interspersed with warm, windy periods and comes at the end of a long, much hotter than normal year. A heat that has almost certainly contributed to a fire year that, for Spain, has resulted in the burning of more acres during 2015 than for all of the previous two years combined.

As with other recent large Winter wildfire outbreaks, the influence of a human-forced warming of the global climate system is writ large. Winter wildfire outbreaks, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, are becoming more frequent — with some major winter wildfire outbreaks even extending to regions near or above the Arctic Circle. Fires that are upshots to an overall extension of the fire season combined with a much greater frequency of wildfire outbreak. It’s trend that comes both from a larger warming of the Earth’s climate system. And not only does the added heat itself fuel a higher frequency of wildfire outbreak, it also increases drought intensity and the speed of drought onset — which generates a compounding factor for increasing wildfire frequency.

Major news media sources reporting on these incidents have yet to make this all-too-obvious link. And, given continued sparse analysis on human forced climate change as a whole, it’s questionable that they ever will.

Links:

Forest Fires Sweep Across Northern Spain Despite Winter Rain

Spanish Firefighters Battle Over a Hundred Fires in Asturias

Fire in Spain: More than 140 Active Fires

Arctic Wildfires in Winter

2015 Hottest Climate Year on Record

Earth Nullschool

Hat Tip to Wharf Rat

 

Mangled Jet Stream Sparks Drought, Winter Wildfires in Southern California — Colby Fire Explodes to Nearly 2000 Acres in One Day

Colby Fire Jan 16

(The Colby Fire as seen from satellite. Image source: NASA)

Major wildfires in winter? It may sound odd, but that’s what’s happening in a California suffering under a climate-change spurred drought that is currently its 9th worst on record.

Yesterday, beneath a dry dome of high pressure and spurred by Santa Ana winds, the Colby fire sparked in a populated suburb of Los Angeles amid a deepening California drought. Today, the fires exploded into a nearly 2,000 acre monstrosity. The blaze, fueled by 30 to 50 mph winds was proving difficult to contain as over 500 firefighters rushed to the scene in an effort to keep it from leaping down into nearby population centers. Mandatory evacuations were in place for hundreds of residents as the fire aggressively advanced toward homes and places of work.

Colby fire photo

(Colby Fire threatens local businesses. Image credit: Julie Palagyi)

Red flag warnings are now in place for many LA counties, which are expected to experience continued strong winds, above average temperatures, and single-digit humidity over the next 24 hours. Such conditions are conducive for the further spread of the Colby fire as well as for the sparking of additional blazes throughout the LA region.

Abnormally Warm, Abnormally Dry

Wildfires are rare in California this time of year. During winter, the region typically experiences wetter, rainier  and cooler conditions as storms flow in off the Pacific Ocean. But this year, a powerful blocking pattern has forced warmer, drier air over the region. It is the other side of the same blocking pattern that is flooding the Arctic with above average temperatures while disrupting the polar vortex and resulting in episodes of extreme weather over the eastern and central US.

Jet Stream Pattern 16 Jan

(Jet Stream Pattern for Thursday and Friday. Image source: University of Washington.)

Note the very high amplitude ridge pushing up from California all the way into central Alaska and the corresponding trough digging down into the eastern US and pushing all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. This image is just a snap shot of the same blocking pattern that has persisted since late March of last year, resulting in wet, stormy conditions for the Eastern US and dry, hot, drought and fire conditions for the western US.

Blocking patterns of this kind have occurred in the past. But it is extraordinarily rare for such events to persist for ten months running. It is also the kind of event that climate experts such as Dr. Jennifer Francis warn is currently caused by a massive loss of sea ice cover in the Arctic and will become more common as sea ice continues its warming-induced retreat resulting in further Jet Stream weakening, meandering and retrenchment.

Weather Pattern Part of Trend Produced by Human-Caused Climate Change

This fixed weather pattern led to very severe conditions in California for December that, according to Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground, resulted in a -4.67 reading on the Palmer drought severity index. This makes December of 2013 the 9th worst drought month on record for California (although anecdotal evidence coming in through January indicate that current conditions may be even worse). It is also worth noting that of the top ten worst drought months to occur since 1880 in California, five have now occurred since 1991 — a climate record that shows an increasing number of dry and record dry periods. Such increasingly extreme drying was predicted by numerous climate models for the US southwest as human warming continued to intensify and advance into the 21rst century.

Though such changes were anticipated by scientists, if not by politicians, business leaders, or the media, it was not clear that a strong fire hazard would emerge in even winter months. But this year has seen numerous intense west coast fires during winter time. Such new conditions are quite anomalous. And should the blocking pattern continue to persist, expect extreme heat, drought and fires to ramp up through spring and summer.

Links:

Plumes of Smoke Waft Through Colby Skies as Wildfire Rages

Historic Drought Intensifies in California

University of Washington

NASA

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