The wildfires are starting.
This is not good news.
Afternoon, y’all. If you follow me on Twitter, you may know that I was in Los Angeles for the last 10 days. It was my first time in Southern California, and I had a wonderful time—minus the fact that a wildfire almost messed up the whole thing.
I’m being dramatic. Here’s what went down. The Saturday after I arrived, I woke up to drizzly skies and an alert on my phone that a wildfire had broken out in Pacific Palisades. Residents in nearby Topanga Canyon were being asked to evacuate. Roads and hiking trails in the area were being shut down.
Seasoned Californians might not have considered this a huge deal. But I could not believe what my phone was telling me. It’s May. It’s raining. And there’s a wildfire big enough to require significant evacuations? Also, not to be selfish, but Topanga Canyon is where I had been planning on staying the next weekend. I was planning to drive on those roads; hike on those tails; and stay in one of those houses.
For a minute, I started to laugh. Of course this would happen. How naive to think the universe would allow me to simply visit Southern California for leisure while existing in the world as a climate reporter. It felt a bit like a slap on the wrist.
Things cleared up pretty quickly. Evacuation orders were lifted by Monday as the fire reached 23 percent containment. Ultimately, the Pacific Palisades Fire—allegedly set by an arsonist—wound up burning 1,158-acres, or nearly two square miles. No structures were damaged, though a firefighter did sustain a minor eye injury. I was able to go to Topanga. It was gorgeous.
It’s one thing to write about climate change from a distance, speaking to experts and politicians and victims on the phone each day. It’s quite another to live your life in the path of one of its most dangerous effects. What I experienced on my first trip to Southern California was extremely mild, but it gave this lifelong East Coaster a deeper appreciation for what it must feel like in the middle of fire season, to regularly check to see if the place you’re going still exists, or if the air will be clean enough for your asthmatic lungs.
I was very lucky to have been able to enjoy my trip. But that won’t be the case for everyone moving forward, especially this summer. So below, I’m re-posting with permission an article from The Conversation, explaining why this year’s fire season in the West in expected to be so bad—and why it was possible that a wildfire could spread to the size of 875 football fields in the middle of Los Angeles in the middle of spring.
This fire season is going to be bad. Here’s why.
By Mojtaba Sadegh, Amir Agha Kouchak, and John Abatzoglou
This article was originally published in The Conversation and is republished here by permission.
Just about every indicator of drought is flashing red across the Western U.S. after a dry winter and warm early spring. The snowpack is at less than half of normal in much of the region. Reservoirs are being drawn down, river levels are dropping and soils are drying out.
It’s only May, and states are already considering water use restrictions to make the supply last longer. California’s governor declared a drought emergency in 41 of 58 counties. In Utah, irrigation water providers are increasing fines for overuse. Some Idaho ranchers are talking about selling off livestock because rivers and reservoirs they rely on are dangerously low and irrigation demand for farms is only just beginning.
Scientists are also closely watching the impact that the rapid warming and drying is having on trees, worried that water stress could lead to widespread tree deaths. Dead and drying vegetation means more fuel for what is already expected to be another dangerous fire season.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on May 13, 2021, that federal fire officials had warned them to prepare for an extremely active fire year. “We used to call it fire season, but wildland fires now extend throughout the entire year, burning hotter and growing more catastrophic in drier conditions due to climate change,” Vilsack said.
As climate scientists, we track these changes. Right now, about 84% of the Western U.S. is under some level of drought, and there is no sign of relief.
The many faces of drought
Several types of drought are converging in the West this year, and all are at or near record levels.
When too little rain and snow falls, it’s known as meteorological drought. In April, precipitation across large parts of the West was less than 10% of normal, and the lack of rain continued into May.
Rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater can get into what’s known as hydrological drought when their water levels fall. Many states are now warning about low streamflow after a winter with less-than-normal snowfall and warm spring temperatures in early 2021 speeding up melting. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Lake Mead, a giant Colorado River reservoir that provides water for millions of people, is on pace to fall to levels in June that could trigger the first federal water shortage declaration, with water use restrictions across the region.
Dwindling soil moisture leads to another problem, known as agricultural drought. The average soil moisture levels in the Western U.S. in April were at or near their lowest levels in over 120 years of observations.
These factors can all drive ecosystems beyond their thresholds – into a condition called ecological drought – and the results can be dangerous and costly. Fish hatcheries in Northern California have started trucking their salmon to the Pacific Ocean, rather than releasing them into rivers, because the river water is expected to be at historic low levels and too warm for young salmon to tolerate.
One of the West’s biggest water problems this year is the low snowpack.
The Western U.S. is critically dependent on winter snow slowly melting in the mountains and providing a steady supply of water during the dry summer months. But the amount of water in snowpack is on the decline here and across much of the world as global temperatures rise.
Several states are already seeing how that can play out. Federal scientists in Utah warned in early May that more water from the snowpack is sinking into the dry ground where it fell this year, rather than running off to supply streams and rivers. With the state’s snowpack at 52% of normal, streamflows are expected to be well below normal through the summer, with some places at less than 20%.
It’s important to understand that drought today isn’t only about nature.
More people are moving into the U.S. West, increasing demand for water and irrigated farmland. And global warming – driven by human activities like the burning of fossil fuels – is now fueling more widespread and intense droughts in the region. These two factors act as additional straws pulling water from an already scarce resource.
As demand for water has increased, the West is pumping out more groundwater for irrigation and other needs. Centuries-old groundwater reserves in aquifers can provide resilience against droughts if they are used sustainably. But groundwater reserves recharge slowly, and the West is seeing a decline in those resources, mostly because water use for agriculture outpaces their recharge. Water levels in some wells have dropped at a rate of 6.5 feet (2 meters) per year.
The result is that these regions are less able to manage droughts when nature does bring hot, dry conditions.
Rising global temperatures also play several roles in drought. They influence whether precipitation falls as snow or rain, how quickly snow melts and, importantly, how quickly the land, trees and vegetation dry out.
Extreme heat and droughts can intensify one another. Solar radiation causes water to evaporate, drying the soil and air. With less moisture, the soil and air then heat up, which dries the soil even more. The result is extremely dry trees and grasses that can quickly burn when fires break out, and also thirstier soils that demand more irrigation.
Alarmingly, the trigger for the drying and warming cycle has been changing. In the 1930s, lack of precipitation used to trigger this cycle, but excess heat has initiated the process in recent decades. As global warming increases temperatures, soil moisture evaporates earlier and at larger rates, drying out soils and triggering the warming and drying cycle.
Fire warnings ahead
Hot, dry conditions in the West last year fueled a record-breaking wildfire season that burned over 15,900 square miles (41,270 square kilometers), including the largest fires on record in Colorado and California.
As drought persists, the chance of large, disastrous fires increases. The seasonal outlook of warmer and drier-than-normal conditions for summer and fire season outlooks by federal agencies suggest another tough, long fire year is ahead.
Mojtaba Sadegh is an assistant professor of civil engineering at Boise State University; Amir AghaKouchak is an associate professor of civil & environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine; and John Abatzoglou is an associate professor of engineering at the University of California, Merced.
Catch of the Day:
This isn’t a picture of Fish, but a picture of a couple burnt out trees I saw while on a hike in Malibu. This was the first time I ever saw burnt out trees in person.
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Stay hydrated, eat plants, break a sweat, and have a great day!
Welcome to California, Emily! Please reach out if you have plans to make it up to the Bay Area. Reading your post makes me realize how fast things have been changing... just a few short years ago I thought of fires as something that happened in Colorado... and now three years later I have three sets of friends who each lost everything in three separate mega fires. I’ve seen more hillsides full of scorched trees than I care to recount, and the once-charming smell of woodsmoke now triggers panic attacks. It’s brutal out here. I’m sorry, and welcome. Do reach out - it would be lovely to see you - and if you do I promise to show you the more cheerful side of CA. :)
Thank you for your writing, you pack a lot of important information in a small space of words. I know that is your profession and craft but I marvel at it nonetheless. It keeps me connected.
A point about the 'American' SW: my local hero, John Wesley Powell (born in Mt Morris. NY) conducted a hydrological survey in 1869, taking the 'first ever' trip down the Colorado River, the equivalent at that time to traveling to the moon. He concluded that the region was not suitable for dense development because of the relative lack of water. His recommendation was ignored, but to be fair by that time there was no way to hold back the tsunami of 'settlers' or to anticipate the additional burdens of climate disruption. As recently as 2008 I informed an astonished classmate from Arizona that a freshwater pipeline would be constructed from the Great Lakes to the SW over my dead body. Alas, inadequate snowfall in the Canadian Shield is causing water levels in the upper Great Lakes to decline.
When I attempt to ponder the fate of the hundreds of millions of people living in this area, I wonder if the scale of domestic climate displacement is appreciated? I feel this is imminent, not some far off consequence. Where will these folks go? Am I crazy thinking the entire region needs to be pre preemptively evacuated?