Last summer, large sections of the mountains of New South Wales, Victoria and ACT were hammered by bushfire. The Emergency Leaders for Climate Action noted that: ‘Australia’s Black Summer fires over 2019 and 2020 were unprecedented in scale and levels of destruction’.
The same terrible fires have been burning environments across the northern hemisphere through their summer. For instance, Colorado has seen its largest ever fires. Fires have burnt on Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain, and in the north east of the USA, a region that rarely burns. One fire chief in Maine said “this was a whole new kind of fire, this is the stuff you see out west.”
And the same forces are at play everywhere: climate change is making fire seasons more intense. The world has warmed as a result of human activity and now all fire events occur in a warmer environment. Thankfully this awareness is now becoming part of the mainstream debate.
Climate change and fire – Colorado
According to a report on Vox.
It’s an increasingly familiar story. Like the epic wildfires this year across California, Oregon, and Washington, the wildfires in Colorado arose amid a year of extreme heat and dryness.
Heat waves baked the state this summer and persisted into the fall. The high temperatures increased the evaporation of moisture from vegetation, leaving plants dry and ready to burn. There was also less rainfall. Over the past month, precipitation was less than 10 percent of what is typical.
It’s also uncommon to see fires this late in the year in Colorado. Typically, winter precipitation starts to set in and cap fire seasons in the autumn.
This fits within the trend of fire seasons in Colorado getting longer.
“Our 2020 wildfire season is showing us that climate change is here and now in Colorado,” said Jennifer Balch, director of the Earth Lab and an associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, in an email. “Warming is setting the stage for a lot of burning across an extended fire season.”
Bryan Shuman is a climate scientist at the University of Wyoming.
Shuman has devoted his career to studying the long-term fire history of the region he calls home – the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. What he’s found has terrifying implications for the near future.
“If you look over the historic record, there really is not anything comparable in the last 100 years to what we’ve just seen now,” says Shuman. In fact, the current surge of fire “really doesn’t have much precedent in historic record. And basically from our paleo records, you more or less have to go back 1,000 years to see anything comparable.”
About 1,000 years ago, Shuman and his team found that much of Northern Colorado burned, as it’s doing now, under temperatures roughly comparable to the present day. They also found that those fires were transformative, and left a permanent mark on fragile high altitude ecosystems.
With this event 1,000 years ago down in Northern Colorado, we saw that more or less created a permanent state change in the forest. After those fires, much of the landscape remained much more open at higher elevations than they had in the past.
Now, Shuman is worried that rapid warming related to climate change is about to have a similarly transformative impact on the forests in Colorado.
It used to snow in September and it basically mostly just rains now. And even in October, you’re really starting to see a reduction in that snow-on-the-ground season.
What’s really amazing is the amount that this area has warmed. We’ve also done a bunch of work reconstructing temperatures over the last 12,000 years across the Northern Hemisphere, but then also in this region specifically. And the amount of warming that we’ve had in the last two to three decades is comparable to the maximum amount of warming that occurred over the last 10,000 years.
In short, Colorado is currently experiencing the worst wildfire conditions in millennia.
Action is always the antidote to despair.