West's wildfires a preview of changed climate: scientists

Fri Jun 29, 2012 6:44am IST

(Reuters) - Scorching heat, high winds and bone-dry conditions are fueling catastrophic wildfires in the U.S. West that offer a preview of the kind of disasters that human-caused climate change could bring, a trio of scientists said on Thursday.

"What we're seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like," Princeton University's Michael Oppenheimer said during a telephone press briefing. "It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster ... This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future."

In Colorado, wildfires that have raged for weeks have killed four people, displaced thousands and destroyed hundreds of homes. Because winter snowpack was lighter than usual and melted sooner, fire season started earlier in the U.S. West, with wildfires out of control in Colorado, Montana and Utah.

The high temperatures that are helping drive these fires are consistent with projections by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said this kind of extreme heat, with little cooling overnight, is one kind of damaging impact of global warming.

Others include more severe storms, floods and droughts, Oppenheimer said.

The stage was set for these fires when winter snowpack was lighter than usual, said Steven Running, a forest ecologist at the University of Montana.

Mountain snows melted an average of two weeks earlier than normal this year, Running said. "That just sets us up for a longer, dryer summer. Then all you need is an ignition source and wind."

Warmer-than-usual winters also allow tree-killing mountain pine beetles to survive the winter and attack Western forests, leaving behind dry wood to fuel wildfires earlier in the season, Running said.

"Now we have a lot of dead trees to burn ... it's not even July yet," he said. Trying to stop such blazes driven by high winds is a bit like to trying to stop a hurricane, Running said: "There is nothing to stop that kind of holocaust."

Fires cost about $1 billion or more a year, and exact a toll on human health, ranging from increased risk of heart, lung and kidney ailments to post-traumatic stress disorder, said Howard Frumkin, a public health expert at the University of Washington.

"Wildfire smoke is like intense air pollution," Frumkin said. "Pollution levels can reach many times higher than a bad day in Mexico City or Beijing."

The elderly, the very young and the ill are most vulnerable to the heat that adds to wildfire risk, he said. The strain of fleeing homes and living in communities in the path of a wildfire can trigger ailments like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

The briefing was convened by the science organization Climate Communications, with logistical support by Climate Nexus, an advocacy and communications group. An accompanying report on heat waves and climate change was released simultaneously here

(This story corrects the name of group convening the briefing in last paragraph)

(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (1)
jfreed27 wrote:
The bad news: even were we to flat line emissions, there is
enough warming that hasn’t yet developed, “in the pipeline” to
make things even worse. If we increase our ppm of CO2, sometime soon
it will be “game over”, where these changes will be beyond
human capacity to limit or adapt, the so-called “tipping point”. This is
the conclusion from studying earth’s history.

The good news is that the same scientists attempting to wake us out
of our cynicism (remember WMD?) and complacency (remember Hitler?) tell us that putting a price on carbon may (may!) decrease the risks, and eventually return our climate to become liveable once again.

Such is the Save Our Climate Act HR3242, which would not cost taxpayers (fees would be refunded) but would saddle carbon based fuel producers with part of the real costs that their pollution currently saddles us. That more fair price would shift choices to carbon neutral sources of energy.

The major obstacle to this no-brainer is the Tea Partiers who are the “fossil tools” of the industry, particularly in the House. Those ‘Koch Roaches’ would scurry under any lie that prolongs the profit taking of those industries.

Jun 29, 2012 1:51am IST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

  • Most Popular
  • Most Shared