Monday, December 3, 2018

Colorado & The Mountain West - The Next Firestorm States?

"Tropical regions with one day of severe humid heat now can expect 100 to 150 days by 2070, if current greenhouse gas emissions continue.  World population of 8.6 billion is forecast as 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in a world shrinking for human use, and more of it uninhabitable, unproductive and submerged."   - Bert Melcher, letter to the Denver Post, Dec. 2, p. 3D)

The apocalyptic scenes in the final '60 Minutes' segment last night were hair raising and outright terrifying - and that's for people watching them from afar. I refer to the horrendous Camp fire that tore through northern California leaving over 173,000 acres barren and full of ash and detritus, with recovery workers having to sift carefully through incinerated remains in search of human bones, teeth.  If they were found, they were carefully placed into paper bags then carried back to a makeshift lab for DNA analysis.   Using this technique, 41 bodies-identities were recovered from the ashes.

The scenes of the fire itself, taken by a fire brigade team, could have been out of Dante's Inferno. Flames reached everywhere and in no time - making escape almost impossible. The head of the Fire rescue team described flames two hundred feet in height - that's as tall as a twenty story building-- and "miles in width" - burning up the equivalent of "one football field a second".  A computer simulation was then rendered to show how fast it spread on a scale topographical map. The question arose as to whether this conflagration was unusual or other states could also experience it.

Ironically, barely two hours earlier I'd just finished reading an unnerving article ('Climate Change Clobbering Colorado And Western U.S.) in Sunday's Denver Post (p. 1B). The map accompanying the article (see below) made it clear western Colorado has had at least the same increase in temperature as the torched areas of California, and also many of the same conditions, especially prolonged drought, many dead or dying trees and people who are building homes close to them.

Basically, the changes in temperature as well as increased drought -  compared to California-   shows all these states are also on track for raging firestorms.  The 300 scientists who produced the National Climate Assessment, including several based along Colorado’s Front Range, point to recent ruinous climate events as evidence that global warming is affecting the United States as never before and threatening to disrupt lives coast to coast. Those impacts are pretty much locked in until 2050 due to past emissions that raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to 410 parts per million. What happens after 2050 depends on how fast humans reduce air pollution from burning fossil fuels, clearing forests and other human activities that further load the atmosphere with heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

I already made one unpopular forecast in a previous blog post, to wit,  that humans needed to get 500 million autos out of circulation in the next few years to have any chance at all limiting a greenhouse hell. Will that happen? How can it when so many of our species see the motorcar as their primary ticket to "independence".  Even wifey admitted she'd shudder to think of doing without her Buick Encore - even for a day.  But what about it and the hundreds of millions of cars like it pumping the atmosphere full of CO2?   "Do not go there We are not having this conversation!"' she retorted.  Fine, then we all just agree to do or say nothing and let any 'outsiders' bear the burdens, while the planet slowly roasts and us with it.

Look, folks, no one said this was going to be easy.  And if no one is the first to act, then no one else will do so.  We could as well become like slowly boiling frogs.  According to Brad Udall, Colorado State University climate scientist quoted in the Post:

The message just gets louder and clearer as the years go by. We have got to deal with this problem. We’ve had event after event after event over the last 10 years with climate change written all over them. We have another 80 years ahead of us. And with the current projected air emissions, the future is bleak,.. We need a sane and safe way to wean ourselves off fossil fuels over the next few decades, doing the least harm we can do to our economy but doing right by the environment. … We have to cease all greenhouse gas emissions as soon as practical.”

Jared Polis, our state's newly elected governor, added:

"States must lead the way, because the federal government has dropped the ball.  My administration will be looking carefully at various options to not only deal with the potential short- and long-term impacts from climate change, but how to do our part to combat the root causes of global climate change through bold, proactive policies to transition to renewable energy.  Climate change is a blinking red light, and we have to act now or our children will end up suffering the consequences of inaction.”

What gives in the Mountain  West?

Well, bigger wildfires and a lengthening “fire season” for starters.   These have combined with population growth and reckless home building in burn zones, making destruction of people and property more likely.  For example, as seen in California’s recent devastating wildfires and fierce burns in Colorado this summer. Additionally, the record-low mountain snow in southern Colorado and higher temperatures has accelerated a climate shift toward aridity that favors frequent ignition.

Already, since we moved to this state in 2000, we've been affected by no less than three monster wildfires, including the Waldo Canyon fire, and the Black Forest fire, see e.g.

No surprise then the cumulative forest area burned is increasing rapidly as the graph below shows:

Federal wildfire analysts have calculated that the 24 million acres burned across the West between 1984 and 2015 was twice what would have burned had global warming caused by humans not happened.  Fires incepted by climate change worsen the problem of more people building homes in forests and flammable former agricultural fields. Colorado state forester Mike Lester said in an interview with the Post that house-building and other urbanization in burn zones has left more than half of Colorado’s population — 2.9 million people — threatened by wildfire. That’s up nearly 50 percent from 2 million in 2012. State task force recommendations to limit construction in what insurers designate as the “wildland urban interface” mostly have been ignored by state lawmakers and property developers.

The more people moving into burn zones, the harder it becomes to restore forest health because safety margins are narrower.   Forests need fires to regenerate, to a point, but totally suppressing fires sets up bigger fires in the future..But this shows again that a large part of the problem is too many people moving into this state, which has too little available land for them to live. (And the situation isn't helped by all the fracking that's going on, and no greater offsets allowed from homes after Prop 112 was defeated. See my post tomorrow).

Global warming is disrupting water flows, too, complicating the water supply necessary to allow more population growth in Colorado and other parts of the arid West. Rocky Mountain snowpack dipped to record low levels this year. Climate scientists have documented lower flows in rivers, including the Colorado River that farmers and urban developers tap as the main source serving 40 million people across seven states. Looming shortages already compelled state officials to prepare emergency plans for curbing use of water from the government-built reservoirs and irrigation systems that enabled settlement of the West.  And there is more and more serious consideration of adopting "toilet to tap" water recycling systems.

Beyond water conservation, some cities are pushing for construction of new and expanded reservoirs to try to store more water when rain falls.

Higher temperatures alone  have forced lifestyle changes, keeping people and pet animals indoors. Since we moved here from Maryland, the number of 90-plus degree days have increased from barely ten to more than twenty-five.  The increasing temperatures even forced us to install a central air conditioning system 5 years ago - something we didn't want to do because of the adverse impact on global warming. Up to then we'd been using a swamp (or evaporative) cooler which is much more eco-friendly.  But as daytime temperatures topped 90 degrees for consecutive days the system simply wasn't able to handle the thermal burden.  All you'd end up getting is hot air blowing out the vents.

Besides, climate scientists say the rising heat hits the elderly hardest, along with children and low-income people who cannot afford to run air-conditioning systems. Still, I already noted two posts ago  how a/c units are forecast to increase to 3.5 b or more by 2050 placing inordinate demands on power grids.  So apart from keeping older farts and kids from croaking of heat stroke, this is not necessarily a good thing.  Increasing demand for artificially cooled air dramatically pumps more CO2 into the atmosphere even as it strains electricity grids, leading to power outages.  Indeed,  at the cusp of the runaway greenhouse effect - say by 2060-  one can argue the various power grids around the world will not be able to keep up with demand - not with 40-50 day heat waves at 110-115 F temperatures.

 Add to all that the fact  the conditions are favorable for mosquitoes and ticks to spread more sickness, including the Lyme disease, and you have a vastly higher misery index. One of the newer additions is the  Asian Longhorned tick, i.e.

 that can infect humans with a form of hemorraghic fever.  The critters are asexual so one of them can lay as many as 2,000 eggs at a time without ever mating.

The Zika virus is  also spreading northward.

According to Gregg Garfin, a University of Arizona climatologist who co-authored parts of the national assessment focused on Colorado and southwestern states:

"The droughts, fires, threats to water supplies and heat waves — those things are all amplified and exacerbated by these increases in temperature,   Fossil fuel extraction is probably really good for the economy in the short term, If you look at the long term, then we have to take into account the effects of heat-trapping gases warming up the lower atmosphere. It is important to see the connections."

Will we see the connections, or will we wait until it's too late to do anything? My bet is the latter.  So long as so many view their automobiles and "independence" more important than the planet's capacity to support present day humans - and future generations - we are for the high jump.  Even Janice agrees with that but it will not be her car put on the sidelines first.

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