Climate Change and Wildfires
By Heir Kiran Garewal
October 18, 2017
While the Southern US and the Caribbean are still recovering from this summer’s hurricanes, another natural disaster has erupted here in Northern California: wildfires. Large wildfires covering 217,000 acres as of October 15, were reported in the state1. These fires, including the Atlas and Tubbs fires, have killed at least 40 people, making them the deadliest in California history1. I and my family are lucky to not be directly impacted by these fires, but I am worried that climate change is allowing more large fires to happen, which will impact more people of my generation in the future. I am even more concerned that wildfires are contributing to even more climate change.
Some wildfires are bound to happen, and some ecosystems are even meant to burn periodically to allow new plants to grow. However, the number of large wildfires in the Western US has been increasing. Between 1980 and 1989, there was an average of 140 wildfires burning over 100,000 acres per year in the West; between 2000 and 2012, there was an average of 250.
That’s almost an 80% increase2! Additionally, the average wildfire season increased by 84 days from 1973-1982 to 2003-20123. This can be partially attributed to earlier spring snowmelts3, which a warming climate can cause4. The earlier the snowmelt, the longer the plants have to dry out before peak fire season. Further, wet winters allow more plants to grow and then hot summers allow them to dry up. These factors together, which climate change exacerbates, allow for extreme fires like the ones happening now in Northern California. This year, we had an unusually wet winter and the hottest summer on record5.
Not only does climate change contribute to wildfires, but wildfires in turn contribute to climate change. Plants store carbon dioxide, but when they are burned, it is released back into the atmosphere. This is similar to the impact of deforestation on climate change. Large fires, like the ones ongoing in California, burn entire forests, releasing high amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. This has brought the air quality in San Francisco to be as bad as Beijing’s6 and the smoke has been seen as far as Southern California. Schools’ sports events and outdoor activities were canceled because of the smoke, and this is just the beginning. While this air quality concern is temporary, much of the CO2 in the atmosphere will be absorbed by the oceans resulting in ocean acidification. This is a long term concern that will affect future generations—there is a considerable lag before it kicks in. Ten years ago, fires in the US released about 290 million metric tons of CO2 every year, or about 4-6% of the nation’s total carbon emissions7. It is possible that it has increased since then. This, through the greenhouse effect, causes climate change, which impacts the ocean through ocean warming and sea level risea.
As I learn that climate change causes natural disasters to be stronger, I worry because my and future generations will have to deal with the consequences of these strengthened disasters. The loss of lives and property that comes with these is already too high, and it’s only increasing. We must use less harmful sources of energy and use less of what we don’t need. Otherwise, we and our descendants will suffer.
1. Rodriguez, Salvador. “Firefighters gain edge in battle with deadly California blazes.” Reuters, 15 Oct. 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-fire/firefighters-gain-edge-in-battle-with-deadly-california-blazes-idUSKBN1CG124
2. “Infographic: Western Wildfires and Climate Change.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013, http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/infographic-wildfires-climate-change.html
3. LeRoy Westerling, Anthony. “Increasing western US forest wildfire activity: sensitivity to changes in the timing of spring.” The Royal Society Publishing, 23 May 2016, DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0178
4. “Snow and Climate.” National Snow and Ice Data Center, http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/snow/climate.html
5. Johnson, Dave. “New data: California is having its hottest summer … ever.” The Mercury News, 1 Sep. 2017, http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/09/01/new-data-california-is-having-its-hottest-summer-ever/
6. Graff, Amy. “The air quality in the Bay Area right now is as bad as Beijing.” SFGate, 12 Oct. 2017, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/air-quality-San-Francisco-Bay-Area-Beijing-12272792.php
7. Dybas, Cheryl and Hosansky, David. “U.S. Fires Release Enormous Amounts of Carbon Dioxide.” National Science Foundation, 31 Oct. 2007, https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110580
a. My microsite about the impacts of climate change on oceans can be found here.