It's well known that climate change is making wildfires worse — but how?U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Dennis W. Goff / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
In September of 2020, as frighteningly hot temperatures and high winds blew wildfires across the state setting more than 2.5 million acres of California land ablaze, then-President Donald Trump paid a visit. He met with Gov. Gavin Newson and several top environmental officials, including Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, who implored Trump to cease his dismissal of evidence that the warming climate was behind the epidemic of fire.
But Trump’s response made excruciatingly clear that he was not ready to take climate change seriously. At all.
“It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch,” Trump stated with familiar yet disconcerting self-assurance. When Crowfoot remarked that science did not agree with him, Trump was again dismissive.
“OK, well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” he said.
It did not get cooler. And the wildfires of 2021 appeared as of mid-July to be on track to become even more devastating than the 2020 blazes, which ended up incinerating 4.1 million acres by the time “fire season” wound down. By July 12, according to a CNN report, 142,477 acres had already burned in the state. By the same date in 2020, “only” 38,889 acres were up in flames.
In 2020, wildfires burned as much land as in 2018, another year of record-setting fires in the state.
Between Jan. 1 and July 6, 2021, 4,902 wildfires were known to have started in California — a total up by more than 700 compared to 2020.
The Beckwourth Complex Fire—a combination of the Sugar and Dotta fires centered in Plumas County, north of Lake Tahoe—had burned 100,531 acres all by itself, as of July 15, according to data posted on the Plumas National Forest Facebook page. And not only were the 2021 fires burning more land than in prior years, they were burning hotter. And faster.
But why? What was causing 2021 to shape up as possibly the most catastrophic wildfire year in California’s history?
Climate Complexity Explodes
The severity of wildfires in the summer of 2021 is exceeding even the most pessimistic predictions of climate scientists, according to a report by Slate. Not only are wildfires worse in 2021, so was the melting of polar ice caps, and the “heat domes”—extreme heat waves caused by high pressure systems that descended on the Pacific Northwest and large swaths of California.
The reason for all of this, NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus told Slate, is that climate change goes well beyond rising atmospheric temperatures, and is rife with “complicated, non-linear processes.” Every outcome of climate change is connected to every other in a massive and largely unpredictable sequence of interlocked crises that becomes exceedingly difficult for even the most sophisticated models to predict.
One obvious connection between two climate-related crises in California is the link between drought and wildfires. Experts say that California’s vegetation in 2021 is reaching new levels of dryness. The San Jose State University Fire Lab has been measuring moisture levels in chamise, a shrub found in chaparral regions, since 2009. The lab found that the plant was dryer in 2021 than in any previously recorded measurement taken in early July.
Plants in 2021 are drying out at a pace six weeks ahead of where they were last year, UCLA Climate Scientist Daniel Swain told the Los Angeles Times. This alarming phenomenon is caused by the one-two punch of ongoing California drought and recent “heat dome” heat waves.
“All else equal, drier vegetation means more intense fires,” Swain told the paper, adding that dryness-driven fires “have a greater tendency to do things like hop over barriers, jump over control lines or roads or bodies of water, or to create their own weather conditions.”
‘The Fire-Breathing Dragons of Clouds’
The Sugar Fire, one of the two Beckwourth Complex fires, did just that in July, creating what the Los Angeles Times described as a “massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud that created its own lightning and was flinging embers about a mile ahead of the main fire.”
Pyrocumulonimbus clouds, often called “fire clouds,” have been described by NASA scientists as “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds,” because the lightning they spark can set off new fires. The clouds can also spawn high winds, even tornadoes, that act as a propellant for wildfires.
Dryness is considered the “X Factor” linking the dozens of increasingly intense California fires in recent years, according to experts cited in the Los Angeles Times story. From July of 2020 to the following June, the state’s Northern Sierra region went through its third-driest year in recorded history, while down south, the city of Los Angeles received only 41 percent of its usual rainfall.
But dryness, caused by drought, can itself make the climate hotter, as Jane Wilson Baldwin, a climate researcher also at Columbia, explained to the Washington Post.
“When the land surface is drier, it can’t cool itself through evaporation, which makes the surface even hotter, which strengthens the [heat dome] further,” she told the paper. “You would be hard-pressed to come up with a metric of heat waves that isn’t getting worse under global warming.”
And of course heat leads to more dryness, which leads to more heat. And so on—until the climate change cycle is broken, an event which sadly appears to be nowhere on the horizon.
According to NASA climate scientists, “even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries.” That’s because it takes years for those harmful gases, mainly carbon dioxide, to clear out of the atmosphere.
Sadly, while countries around the world have enacted nearly 2,300 laws designed to slow climate change, the global temperature is still going up, according to a 2021 report by the World Meteorological Organization, which estimated a 90 percent chance that at least one year from 2021 and 2025 will go down as the hottest on record. There is also a 40 percent chance, according to the WMO, that global temperature will hit 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels in that time span—a level that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change set as a dangerous benchmark that must be avoided.
Simply by belonging to the Paris Agreement—as the United States now does once again after Trump pulled the U.S. out in 2019— countries agree to keep global temperatures below that 2.7 degree mark.