Monday, September 21, 2020

The Facts About Climate Change and California Fires

The article below is generally sensible but at one point the author did not feel safe to deny global warming orthodoxy. He writes:

“It stands to reason that as the planet warms, the American West will become drier and states’ wildfire seasons will be longer. ”

That does NOT stand to reason It is often asserted but ignores basic physics. The oceans in a warmer would evaporate off more water vapor and that would come down as more rain. A warmer world would be a WETTER world

Despite some progress made by heroic firefighters, wildfires continue to tear through the West. Tragically, the fires have taken more than 30 lives (with many more missing), destroyed thousands of structures, and burned millions of acres.

Here are answers to some of the commonly asked questions on causes for the wildfires and obstacles that stand in the way of solutions.

What caused the wildfires?

At least several factors. At the end of August, a storm with a lot of lightning and little rain struck. An estimated 11,000 lightning strikes hit California over a three-day span, sparking fires throughout the state.

More recently, two of the fires started because of hot soot from a car tailpipe and a family using a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” for a gender reveal party. One man in Oregon has been charged with arson.

Investigations continue into the causes of some of the fires. In the past, campfires, discarded cigarettes, fallen power lines, and arson have been the culprit.

Despite accusations that extremists on both the left and right set certain wildfires, neither has been the case. In fact, false rumors have served only to spread resources thinner and detract from serious investigations.

The more than 3.2 million acres burned thus far in California are the most in recorded history.

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, data over the past 30 years shows that the number of fires is on a downward trend while the number of acres burned is on an upward trend.

However, as Mother Jones reports, ecologists and fire scientists estimate that prehistoric fires were worse, burning between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres per year.

On a national scale, data from the National Interagency Fire Center shows a downward trend for both fires and acres burned from 1926 through 2019, though reporting methods differed before 1983.

California is a hot and dry place. The winds can be fierce this time of year and the steep slopes of the topography can make them practically unstoppable. Although the winds come every year, they’re also unpredictable.

Alexandra Syphard, an ecologist at the Conservation Biology Institute, noted that “wind-driven fires are the ones most associated with catastrophic losses” because of their difficulty to contain and propensity to reach places where people live.

Then there’s the fuel load. Without proper management, whether prescribed burns or timber harvesting, California is a tinder box comprised of dry trees, grass, and shrubs. Invasive species, including grasses and shrubs, also contribute to worse wildfires because they dry out and have a higher likelihood of burning than native plants.

Better land management long has been understood as a necessity to reduce the severity of fires. Malcolm North, of the U.S. Forest Survey, says: “Climate dries the [wood] fuels out and extends the fire season from four to six months to nearly year-round. [B]ut it’s not the cause of the intensity of the fires. The cause of that is fire suppression and the existing debt of wood fuel.”

Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director for Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, told ProPublica: “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load.”

If controlled burns and thinning forests are effective, why are they so hard to do?
California’s fuel load has been a long-standing, worsening problem and a top priority for ecologists and land managers who want to reduce the severity of wildfires.

Jon Keeley, senior scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center, said: “We ought to be much more concerned with ignition sources than a 1- to 2-degree change in temperature.”

Prescribed burns (see photos here) are an effective, non-controversial way to reduce the fuel load and consequently reduce the destruction caused by a wildfire. Fires also help to control pests, to remove non-native plants, and to provide nutrients to trees and other vegetation.

As the narrator says in this National Geographic video: “Giant sequoias depend on fire to reproduce. The heat opens their seed cones, their seeds are released, the flames clear the earth for their germination. While lesser trees blaze around them, the giant sequoias stand virtually unscathed by the flames.”

Studies have shown that these prescribed burns do not harm the ecology of the forest. California has implemented controlled burns for an average of 13,000 acres from 1997 to 2017. But a February article in the journal Nature Sustainability suggests that California needs about 20 million acres burned.

Controlled burns are by no means a silver bullet, but an overwhelming consensus exists among land managers that such burns are the most immediate and effective action to take.

As for why that hasn’t happened, the same article in Nature Sustainability breaks it down to three categories: risk, resources, and regulation.

Some have concerns about the smoke from controlled burns, and that the fires may get out of control; others have concerns over liability should that occur. Even so, the practice largely has won public acceptance.

Another barrier is presented by weather and location. Controlled burns take into account ideal humidity ranges, as well as wind direction and speed. Some controlled burns occur where there are power lines or pipelines, which require additional attention. COVID-19 postponed many of the prescribed burns.

Regulation presents a major obstacle. Prescribed burns go through a lengthy approval process. Securing a permit can take up to 18 months. These burns are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act and must meet federal, state, and local air quality standards.

Of course, the pollution and air quality is much worse from the wildfires than from a controlled burn. Even when a plan seemingly checks all the necessary boxes, it still may be held up in the courts. Although some progress has occurred to expedite the process, more needs to be done.

Another solution is timber harvesting, which helps thin the landscape and put those resources to productive use.

What is the role of climate change?

It stands to reason that as the planet warms, the American West will become drier and states’ wildfire seasons will be longer. The planet has been in a warming period for the past 160 years, and part of that warming is a result of human activity.

One study out of UCLA estimates that the number of days with extreme fire weather in the fall has more than doubled over the past 40 years. Another study in Earth’s Future found similar results for warming’s effect on fuel drying, but noted that a changing climate has not affected wind or precipitation patterns:

In fall, wind events and delayed onset of winter precipitation are the dominant promoters of wildfire. While these variables did not change much over the past century, background warming and consequent fuel drying is increasingly enhancing the potential for large fall wildfires.

Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, emphasizes that even without the warming that is occurring, fuels are “plenty dry enough to burn already.”

Soil moisture is another factor that can determine how severe a wildfire might be. Last year, in a very mild season, soil moisture in California was 40% above average for most of the state and even higher in some parts.

Droughts can be both bad and good. Droughts obviously create a dry climate for vegetation to burn, but extended droughts can result in less fire because, as NASA’s Ben Cook points out, “the vegetation will not grow back as vigorously, and you may run out of fuel to burn.”

Some parts of California, such as the area where the Camp Fire wildfire occurred in 2018, saw no discernible trend in fuel moisture or precipitation, but the winds were strong enough to dry out the vegetation anyway.

Which brings us to another point of the discussion: how climate change affects wind patterns. California is known for intense winds, such as the Diablo winds in the north and the Santa Ana winds in the south.

Several studies show that warming actually could reduce the frequency of the Santa Ana winds and potentially weaken the pressure of Diablo winds. If precipitation patterns change, however, that merely might push the wildfire season from the fall into the winter.

That’s to say that the link between climate change and wildfires exists, but it also is quite complex.

What about where we live, and housing policies?
Residents of the West are moving to more fire-prone areas. The New York Times podcast “The Daily” explains that this is called the Wildland Urban Interface, where development meets wild vegetation.

People choose to live in more rural areas for a host of reasons. They may want to be closer to nature and where houses are more affordable. The higher number of homes and businesses in these areas also increases the likelihood of a human-induced fire and puts more lives and structures at risk. These threats as they pertain to the Wildland Urban Interface are not specific to California, but exist in many places around the country.

Housing policies also contribute to the decision by some to move to the Wildland Urban Interface. A homelessness problem plagues California and home prices are high, particularly in the cities.

The combination of the difficulty in expanding housing in the cities, the ease of building on green space, and state and local incentives to build in more remote locations encourages development in places that are at higher risk for wildfires.

Both state-subsidized housing (140,000 units in the Wildland Urban Interface) and local subsidies result in more houses than otherwise might be there. Also, because subsidies for building are still there, not to mention that a town’s budget and operations are paid for through property taxes, a strong incentive exists to rebuild.

And yet another piece of this puzzle is insurance. Insurance prices can be the great arbiter of accepting a certain amount of risk, whether that’s accepting the insurance premium of a sports car or purchasing a home in a flood- or fire-prone area.

A major part of the problem, however, is that the government can distort that risk by socializing it among taxpayers, or, in the case of California, banning insurers from refusing to renew fire insurance policies they deemed too risky. At the same time, some of the state’s housing policies encouraged expansion of homes and businesses to these more remote areas.

It’s understandable why homeowners are frustrated at the prospects of not being able to have insurance, but these policies skew the actual risk of living in these areas.

Alternative, market-based risk models are cropping up in parts of the country to better assess the risk and deploy fire- suppression resources where they’re needed most.

When the risk is accurately assessed, it should incentivize more prescribed burns, timber harvesting, and installation of fire- resistant materials on homes and other buildings. But even then, it is challenging because most often reducing the fuel load is out of the hands of the home or business owner.

The Western wildfires are tragic and devastating. A nearly universal consensus exists that prescribed burns can measurably reduce the risk of future fires.

Now is the time for the political will to make it happen, so we’re not writing and reading the same story a year from now.


A Successful Solution to Attack Wildfire

Here are two ideas that can make a difference and save lives.

First, create, fund and deploy a true Fire Attack Air Force to attack the inferno the way our military attacks an enemy: use overwhelming force, agile and adaptable tactics, amass the right resources, mobilize allies and deploy them strategically. Air attack cannot single-handedly stop a fire. But using water and retardants, it can help contain a fire if deployed as soon as a fire breaks out, slow its movement, and help open a corridor of escape for trapped residents. They can build a fire-line around flames. Planes can reach areas too hot and dangerous for fire crews to work in. It is critical to have this overwhelming force applied immediately on a fire before it builds into an uncontrollable inferno.

California boasts some of the best, most seasoned firefighters in the country. That goes for pilots. View footage of a helicopter dropping water or fixed wing aircraft like a DC-10 tanker soaring low over the landscape and emptying a bellyful of 12,000 gallons of water or retardant in eight seconds. It’s hard to quantify the impact, but sensible people agree that it helps.

What’s frustrating is watching only a single helicopter or plane dropping their loads. Imagine the impact if we deployed an air armada of 60 craft over a targeted area. They might not put out a fire, but massive bombardment would make a difference and certainly would slow progress enough for firefighters on the ground to succeed. It could contain damage and protect escape routes.

This idea is no pipe dream. California boasts some of the best. These firefighters are incredibly brave. Yet CalFire is today under-staffed and under-budgeted. That’s the product of unimaginative, incompetent leadership.

Some complain that an air attack force is expensive. What value do they place on a human life? A family or a community destroyed? Let’s shift priorities. We’re wasting over $100 billion dollars on a high-speed train of limited value whose costs keep ballooning. Why tolerate that? We need to be agile, flexible and adaptable.

Let’s also get aircraft into the air earlier. Current policy allows aircraft to launch after 10:00 a.m. But experts tell us that fires are more effectively attacked very early in the morning. We must balance pilot safety and effectiveness. But our pilots are capable. We owe them our deepest thanks.

Such action may or may not save a Camp Okizu or Big Creek, but it would improve their chances, and may well save future lives.

A second idea is understanding what is plausible. Battling California’s wildfires is not question of resources alone. We need good “generals” and smart strategy. Land and homeowners have done everything they can to prepare, but fire does not respect property lines. Roughly 129 million trees died on California’s federal, state and private lands between 2010 and 2017, according to one analysis. And yet state and federal authorities failed to devote the resources to address this unprecedented die-off. The ill-conceived policies that undermine sound forest management policies to safeguard land, property and above all, lives, should be swept away like deadwood.

Wildfire requires military-minded resolve and attack. Assembling a modern, dedicated California Fire Air Attack Force is a key to winning this war. We can win the battle and the war. That starts with demanding and having the right leadership.


Doubling down on climate change and censorship

A year ago, we showed in a Washington Examiner op-ed that the mathematical computer models used to promote global warming fears had been, for years, systematically overpredicting the rate of warming in the tropical lower atmosphere, typically by a factor of three. This touched off a hysterical response, starting with censorship.

Facebook “fact-checker” Climate Feedback labeled our opinion piece “false,” which blocked its distribution on the social media giant. Tech mogul Eric Michelman has for over a decade funded efforts to end debate on climate change, saying that “the science is settled.” In 2015, he founded and funded Climate Feedback and staffed it with the very climate modelers whose work we criticized in our op-ed.

We and the Washington Examiner appealed to Facebook, providing a detailed basis for our opinion, and Facebook removed the label, which again allowed our piece to be viewed and advertised.

We were referring to the tranche of climate models that formed much of the basis for the most recent U.N. “Assessment” of the state of climate science from 2014. The next one, due out in 2021, features a new generation of models. According to Ross McKitrick at the University of Guelph and John Christy at the University of Alabama, all of the new models that were available to review are now overpredicting globally, and they are even warmer than the last batch. Their article will soon be published in the peer-reviewed journal Earth and Space Science.

The new set of models keeps growing, and the Department of Energy now lists 40 centers worldwide running their own models. Each one costs a fortune. If “the science is settled,” then why do we need so many models solving the same problem (and getting different solutions)?

Further, a landmark encyclopedia-length study of the climate’s “sensitivity” to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, just published in Reviews of Geophysics, repeatedly notes that these new models aren’t reproducing the observed geographic patterns of warming. For example, they predict substantial warming to be occurring in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. It’s not; in fact, many parts of it are cooling. The lead author, Australian Steven Sherwood, wrote that the warming of that ocean will “likely [take] hundreds of years or more” to appear and that the models’ behavior “may call into question their ability to accurately simulate the long-term pattern of warming.”

Nonetheless, the study raised the lowest expected warming for doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide from the United Nation’s current value of 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2.3 degrees. This change would roughly equal the total warming from the year 1900 to 2100, though ascribing the earliest warming, 1910-1945, to carbon dioxide is debatable because emissions had barely risen by the time it began. Sherwood also noted discrepancies between the new climate models and the early warming.

It remains to be seen, given the public’s new understanding of how incorrect assumptions drove COVID-19 modeling to scary heights, whether the U.N., in its upcoming report, will accept this raising of the floor.

Consider that many of the new models, about 15, depending upon where you look, predict more warming for this century than their predecessors. However, when run as historical simulations, all of these hot models predict more, sometimes much more warming to have occurred in recent decades than what has actually been observed.

As the alarmist E&E News has candidly admitted, “climate models … are the foundation for policies used to craft many carbon regulations.” It appears that the newest latest-greatest ones not only get the magnitude of observed warming wrong but that they also put it in the wrong places.

It’s hard to figure how Facebook’s climate squad is going to come down on us for merely opining on the new models and the Sherwood opus. But bigger names and tons of money have joined the censorship bandwagon. Now, we have Tom Steyer, Stacey Abrams, the heads of 17 of the biggest green lobby groups, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and three of her colleagues all calling on Facebook to ban us and our alliance of 55 climate scientists and energy economists.

Newer models that have increased errors shouldn’t be the basis for jettisoning the health and environmental benefits of our fossil-fueled energy or for censoring informed scientific opinion.


Australian miner declares victory over Greenie activists

Resources giant Adani has declared victory over environmental activists who tried to stop its $2 billion coal mine in central Queensland.

The Indian-owned company’s chief executive David Boshoff says the Carmichael project in the Galilee Basin has already created 1500 jobs, despite sustained opposition from green and Indigenous groups.

“The Stop Adani movement said our project would never go ahead and would never create a single job. We have proved our opponents wrong,” Mr Boshoff said in a statement on Friday.

His comments come a week after the Supreme Court in Brisbane ordered chief activist Ben Pennings to remove posts on social media from 2017 and 2018 encouraging people to get jobs at Adani to obtain information about the coal project to use aganist the company.

Mr Pennings, who runs the Galilee Blockade, was also ordered to stop asking others to disclose information to him about the project or using confidential information he obtains in his campaigns.

Mr Boshoff said Adani had helped prop up the resources sector and the state’s economy during the pandemic with 88 per cent of its contracts being delivered in Queensland.

He said with 1500 jobs already, more permanent roles will be created when the mine and rail line are operating.

“We are looking forward to the day next year when we can celebrate our success with our Queensland partners and employees, while watching the first shipment of coal being exported. Until then, it remains full speed ahead on construction,” Mr Boshoff said.

Meanwhile, the miner says it has managed to protect a traditional cultural heritage site after workers clearing grass for the railway found it last weekend.

The Jangga people, the area’s Traditional Owners, told the company the site is believed to be a women’s quarry, which was used to create tools and may be thousands of years old.

Mr Boschoff said with Jangga consent the company moved a vehicle access track to the railway, which will protect the site.

“This is a great outcome for both the Jangga People and Adani,” he said.

“The delivery of the Carmichael Project has enabled the Jangga People to do further exploration of their Country and discover more about their own rich history and culture.”




Preserving the graphics: Most graphics on this site are hotlinked from elsewhere. But hotlinked graphics sometimes have only a short life — as little as a week in some cases. After that they no longer come up. From January 2011 on, therefore, I have posted a monthly copy of everything on this blog to a separate site where I can host text and graphics together — which should make the graphics available even if they are no longer coming up on this site. See here or here


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As John writes, "A warmer world would be a WETTER world."

Yes. Will Happer agrees. Here's my post on that from Sep.11...

Will Happer tells us that ice core data reveal that in a colder world there is more dust, implying that a colder world is a dryer world, and the opposite for a warmer world. Watch video for this time segment (26:45 – 27:30), starting here (if the link remains intact on posting it)...