Thursday, November 26, 2020

Preventing future forest infernos

Paul Driessen

The 2020 fire season is nearing its end. But monstrous wildfires continue to rage across America’s western states, devastating towns and habitats, and killing hundreds of people and millions of animals. Politicians and environmentalists continue to rage that climate change is the primary factor, allowing few responsible, commonsense forest management actions that could actually reduce the risks.

Manmade climate change is a convenient scapegoat, but it cannot be separated from natural climate fluctuations and effects. Moreover, even assuming fossil fuel emissions play a dominant role in the human portion of this equation – and even if the Pacific Northwest or entire USA eliminated coal, oil and natural gas – China, India and scores of other nations will not do so anytime soon.

And they will certainly be using fossil fuels to manufacture the wind turbines, solar panels and batteries envisioned by Green New Dealers – and to mine and process the raw materials those technologies require.

The key ingredient in these monstrous, devastating forest fires is fuel. A century of Smokey the Bear fire suppression, coupled with half-century bans on timber harvesting, tree thinning and even insect control has filled western forests with dense concentrations of brush, fallen branches, needles and leaves, skinny young trees and huge older trees – many of them dead or dying – ready to be turned into conflagrations under hot, dry summer and autumn conditions that prevail most years in California and other western states.

It’s a recipe for disasters like the 1871 Peshtigo Fire, 20 miles north of where I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin, on the very same day as the Great Chicago Fire. Blistering flames a mile high moved south at 100 mph, creating “fire tornados” that threw houses and rail cars into the air. Over a million acres of forest were obliterated in two days; up to 2,500 people died, many of them cremated into little piles of ash.

I also recall how American and British bombers deliberately turned Hamburg, Germany into an inferno in July 1943. The first waves of planes dropped “blockbuster” bombs that leveled arms factories and parts of the city known to have mostly wooden structures. They were followed in subsequent days by attacks with incendiary bombs, which turned the wood debris into a firestorm, with tornado winds up to 150 mph, and temperatures of nearly 1500 F. Operation Gomorrah killed over 40,000 people.

A few days ago, I picked up my latest issue of Wired magazine. Daniel Duane’s 12-page article “The fires next time” made a couple now-obligatory references to climate change, but was one of the most detailed and insightful articles I’ve read on the causes and nature of these horrific wildfires. He vividly explains why we are witnessing a “trend toward fires dramatically more catastrophic” than in the past.

Above all, the reason is fuel buildup. CalFire, he notes, has some 75 aircraft and 700 fire engines, and is very good at extinguishing thousands of wild-land fires annually. But CalFire has virtually no fuel-management authority and must simply watch the trees and other fuel get “more and more dense,” creating prime conditions for ever-worsening crown fires that US Forest Service scientist Mark Finney says are big because landscapes are full of tinder and long-burning, heavy fuels. Ditto in other states.

More trees of course generate more roots competing for the same water, further drying everything out. In California alone, this and the 2011-2016 drought and pine bark beetles killed 150 million trees!

Another key ingredient, Duane writes, is the simultaneous burning of many small fires (caused by multiple lightning strikes, eg) that combine light and heavy fuels over a large area, amid mild ambient winds. “As that broad area continues to burn with glowing and smoldering embers over many hours, the separate convective columns of all those many little fires begin to join into a single, giant plume.”

As hot air in the plume rises, air at its base is replaced by air “sucked in from all directions. This can create a 360-degree field of wind howling directly into the blaze ... oxygenating the fire and pushing temperatures high enough to flip even ... giant construction timbers and mature trees into full-blown flaming combustion. Those heavy fuels then pump still more heat into the convective column.... [which] rises ever faster and sucks in more wind, as if the fire has found a way to stoke itself.” The timbers, branches and entire trees become “firebrands” that can be carried high into the air, a mile or more from the primary fire, then dropped into timber stands and homes, igniting still more firestorms.

Smaller blazes can be controlled, even extinguished. But massive firestorms can be impossible to suppress, saving homes equally hopeless. The primary order of business with mass fires is getting people out of harm’s way, before escape routes are clogged, cars run out of gas, and walls of flame close in.

That means building more escape roads from communities through forests to safety, even in the face of environmentalist opposition and lawsuits. Roads are far less intrusive or harmful than conflagrations. Yet radical greens battle these roads, while praising these unnatural conflagrations as “nature’s way.”

People lived in these areas long before pressure groups, politicians and courts made conflagration conditions this horrific. Actions need to be taken now to prevent more deadly fire cataclysms. That has to begin with removal of diseased, dead and excessive trees and brush. It will take years, decades even, and a lot of effort and money. But failure to halt and reverse the buildup of fuel in our forests is undeniably irresponsible – and deadly. Apache Indian forestry programs prove sound management saves forests.

Blaming climate change is useless and irresponsible. It means waiting 30-50 years or more, just to see if China and India finally replace fossil fuels, perhaps with nuclear power – in the hope that reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide actually reduces climate change, droughts, extreme weather and infernos.

Policymakers, land management agencies and regulators, Native tribes, community associations, industry groups and less obdurate environmental groups should seek collaboration and cooperation, especially on forest management and tree thinning. This is already happening but needs to be expanded greatly.

Educational programs should teach homeowners how to harden and fireproof houses and other buildings against small to midsized fires – and teach judges and politicians the hard realities of modern fires. Above all, those with ultimately life-or-death decision-making authority must understand that the price of bans on timber harvesting and responsible forest management is too often measured in homes and habitats obliterated, wildlife and humans killed, soil organisms incinerated, soils washed away by rainstorms and snowmelts, and millions of acres denuded and desolate for decades.

Tougher building codes for new construction in these areas would save homes, heirlooms and lives. Roofs especially should be made of fireproof or fire-resistant materials. Special financing and low-interest loans would make such new homes and hardened existing homes and buildings more affordable.

Local, state and federal budgets are already stretched to their limits. Funding will have to be redirected from other programs. Another approach could require forestry work for welfare checks. Besides saving habitats and lives, that would build skills, self-esteem and strong work ethics, improve physical fitness, replace a sense of entitlement with a sense of accomplishment, and create connections and opportunities

Another source of funds could be billionaires like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who recently gave $791 million to climate activist groups, as part of his commitment to his $10-billion Earth Fund. Certainly, helping to stop these deadly fires – and the incalculable air pollution, soil erosion, and habitat and wildlife destruction they cause – would be one of the boldest and most effective actions anyone could take to protect Earth’s future, including the majestic at-risk forests in his own backyard.

The bottom line is so simple we shouldn’t even have to state it.

If we don’t act, nature will. We have created this massive fuel-for-fires problem. We can and must fix it. Either we thin out trees, or nature will – with devastating consequences. For people who claim to care deeply about saving our forests for Bambi, spotted owls and other beloved creatures, guaranteeing horrific infernos is quite literally a hellish way to demonstrate our love for Mother Earth.

Via email

Climate 21 Project: Transition Recommendations For Climate Governance and Action

A proposal by advisers to president-elect Biden's transition team calls for "decarbonizing surface transportation," immediate cuts in fossil fuel extraction on federal lands, and the eventual "net-zero" elimination of fossil fuels by 2050.

Remarkably, it is all based on an inaccurate premise: there is a "punishing toll of climate change" that requires dramatic cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases.

As readers of the CO2 Coalition's White Papers and congressional testimony in recent years know, both parts of this premise hinge on model speculation about the future rather than scientific analysis of actual data to date.

According to the data and analyses of the UN IPCC, emissions of carbon dioxide are responsible for no more than a quarter of the global warming of one degree since 1900, and there has been no statistically significant increase in rates of hurricanes, floods, droughts, sea-level rise and other damaging weather events. Methane emissions are only one-tenth as potent as carbon dioxide emissions, and even a doubling of methane levels over hundreds of years would not cause a measurable increase in global temperature.

Far from taking a "punishing toll," fossil fuels have driven global income and living standards, and as a result, life expectancy and health, to all-time highs. And carbon dioxide emissions have had a net positive impact on the economy and environment, re-greening the earth by boosting crop productivity by a third.

On the positive side, the transition proposal does adopt the very steps to reduce damage from wildfires outline by CO2 Coalition biologists earlier this year: forest management and controlled burns on public lands, which have been prohibited by a complex of laws and regulations.

Via email from The CO2 Coalition:

Biden Appoints Famous Jet Setter as Climate Change Czar

Former Vice President Joe Biden has released a first round of individuals he would choose for his Cabinet and other high profile administration positions. Former Secretary of State John Kerry is on the list and plans to serve as Biden's "Special Presidential Envoy for Climate."

"Former Secretary of State John Kerry will fight climate change full-time as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and will sit on the National Security Council. This marks the first time that the NSC will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect’s commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue," the Biden team released Monday.

Kerry will be tasked with getting the United States back into Paris Climate Accord, which doesn't police the pollution of China, India or Russia, but does force American taxpayers to foot the bill.

The U.S. fully left the agreement in November and President Trump again explained why during the virtual G20 over the weekend.

Despite leaving the accord, the U.S. has reduced emission levels by more than required by the agreement.

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) analyzed data and released a chart based on research by the 2018 BP Statistical Review of Global Energy and University of Michigan economist Mark Perry indicating that the United States achieved the largest decline in carbon emissions in the world for the 9th time this century. AEI reported that in 2017, U.S. carbon emissions decreased by more than 42 million tons. Despite departing from the Paris agreement, the U.S. significantly reduced its carbon footprint this year. This remarkable success can be attributed to substituting natural gas for coal. We’re upholding our end of the contract and we’re not even signees anymore.

Could we ever pull enough carbon out of the atmosphere to stop climate change? But it's all theory anyway

Only in theory

Nature has equipped Earth with several giant "sponges," or carbon sinks, that can help humans battle climate change. These natural sponges, as well as human-made ones, can sop up carbon, effectively removing it from the atmosphere.

But what does this sci-fi-like act really entail? And how much will it actually take — and cost — to make a difference and slow climate change?

Sabine Fuss has been looking for these answers for the last two years. An economist in Berlin, Fuss leads a research group at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change and was part of the original Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — established by the United Nations to assess the science, risks and impacts of global warming. After the panel’s 2018 report and the new Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) or less, Fuss was tasked with finding out which carbon removal strategies were most promising and feasible.

Afforestation and reforestation — planting or replanting of forests, respectively — are well known natural carbon sinks. Vast numbers of trees can sequester the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere for photosynthesis, a chemical reaction that uses the sun's energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. According to a 2019 study in the journal Science, planting 1 trillion trees could store about 225 billion tons (205 billion metric tons) of carbon, or about two-thirds of the carbon released by humans into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began.

Agriculture land management is another natural carbon removal approach that's relatively low risk and already being tested out, according to Jane Zelikova, terrestrial ecologist and chief scientist at Carbon180, a nonprofit that advocates for carbon removal strategies in the U.S. Practices such as rotational grazing, reduced tilling and crop rotation increase carbon intake by photosynthesis, and that carbon is eventually stored in root tissues that decompose in the soil. The National Academy of Sciences found that carbon storage in soil was enough to offset as much as 10% of U.S. annual net emissions — or about 632 million tons (574 million metric tons) of CO2 — at a low cost.

But nature-based carbon removal, like planting and replanting forests, can conflict with other policy goals, like food production, Fuss said. Scaled up, these strategies require a lot of land, oftentimes land that's already in use.

This is why more tech-based approaches to carbon removal are crucial, they say. With direct air capture and carbon storage, for instance, a chemical process takes carbon dioxide out of the air and binds it to filters. When the filter is heated, the CO2 can be captured and then injected underground. There are currently 15 direct air capture plants worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency. There's also bioenergy with carbon capture. With this method, plants and trees are grown, creating a carbon sink, and then the organic material is burned to produce heat or fuel known as bioenergy. During combustion, the carbon emissions are captured and stored underground. Another carbon capture trick involves mineralization; in this process, rocks get ground up to increase the surfaces available to chemically react with, and crystallize, CO2. Afterward, the mineralized CO2 is stored underground.

However, none of these technologies have been implemented on a large scale. They're extremely expensive, with estimates as high as $400 per ton of CO2 removed, and each still requires a lot of research and support before being deployed. But the U.S. is a good example of how a mix of carbon removal solutions could work together, Zelikova said: Land management could be used in the agricultural Midwest; basalt rocks in the Pacific Northwest are great for mineralization; and the oil fields in the Southwest are already primed with the right technology and skilled workers for underground carbon storage, she said.

Ultimately, every country will have to put together its own unique portfolio of CO2 removal strategies because no single intervention will be successful on its own. "If we scaled up any of them exclusively, it would be a disaster," Fuss said. "It would use a lot of land or be prohibitively expensive." Her research has shown that afforestation and reforestation will be most productive in tropical regions, whereas solar radiation differences in the more northern latitudes with more albedo (reflection of light back into space) mean those countries will likely have better luck investing in the more technological interventions, such as carbon capture and biomass extraction.

The need to deploy these solutions is imminent. The global carbon budget, the amount of CO2 humans can emit before the global temperature rises 2.7 F (1.5 C) above preindustrial levels, is about 300 gigatons of CO2, Fuss said.

"In recent years, we've emitted 40 gigatons," she said. Put another way, only a few years are left in that budget. A recent study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that waiting even a few years from now may be too late if we are to meet the goal set in the Paris Agreement. Based on their climate model, the authors predict that even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, "global temperatures will be 3 C [5.4 F] warmer and sea levels 3 meters [10 feet] higher by 2500 than they were in 1850." To reverse climate change's effects, 33 gigatons of existing greenhouse gases must be removed this year and every year moving forward, the researchers said.

The reality, however, is these approaches are not ready and there's not a consensus on how to pay for them.




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