By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer
Climate change deniers need look no further than the swaths of northern California forest set ablaze by lightning strikes in late August for evidence of the mounting global crisis. As of Sept. 23, 138,000 acres of land have been consumed.
For the thousands of Californians forced to flee their homes, the fire was a surprise, but climate scientists have been trying to warn the nation of such impending disasters for years.
Rising temperatures and decreased rainfall increase the likelihood of fires, as well as create the ideal environment for these fires to spread. While these conditions are caused by climate change, a lack of preventative measures also exacerbates the devastation these fires will cause.
Prescribed burns, the controlled burning of sections of forest to remove highly flammable underbrush, could reduce the severity of wildfires. But, according to University of California, Berkeley Forest Ecologist and climate change scientist Patrick Gonzalez, the method has only been adopted in recent years.
“Outdated policies and human-caused climate change have increased burn area [by] 900% across the western U.S. since 1984,” Gonzalez said.
According to California public land surveys, the state holds just under 50 million acres of forests and chaparral, shrubs, and bushes that act as kindling for forest fires. Within this forested land are roughly three million homes.
Presently, the number of “fire risky” days sits at about eight per season. “Fire risky” refers to days in which conditions would allow lightning strikes and small fires to develop into the enormous blazes we are presently seeing.
Stanford University Climate Scientist Noah Diffenbaugh expects the number of fire risky days to increase by three or four days should global temperatures rise an additional degree.
“Another degree of global warming on top of that, and we can be confident it will increase the occurrence of extreme wildfire weather further,” he said. “The trajectory we’ve been on will likely lead to greater than three degrees, and potentially four or five degrees.”
With each degree of warming will come an additional three to four chances for devastating wildfires to start.
Beyond greenhouse gas emissions, the wildfires themselves are contributing to this rapid increase in temperature. As the flames claim more organic material, more carbon is released into the atmosphere.
The hotter, drier conditions are also hindering the regrowth of previously burned forest. Redwood trees, which comprise a majority of northern California’s coastal forests, are suited to grow in the cold fog for which the Pacific northwest is known. According to San Jose State University ecologist Rachel Lazzeri-Aerts, the region is already seeing lower numbers of adult-sized redwoods.
Failure to act on climate change creates a disastrously slippery slope. If we do not reduce our emissions, global temperatures will rise, and we will continue to see an increase in wildfires. These wildfires, in turn, will release carbon emissions of their own, further driving up the temperature. In a matter of decades, our nation could be reduced to ashes.
For the everyday consumer, acting against climate change may mean biking to work rather than traveling by car, or switching to energy-saving lightbulbs. When possible, we should “shop green,” putting our money toward companies that operate sustainably.
These small actions are helpful, but major change must come from those in power. We should hold our politicians responsible for protecting our planet, contacting our representatives on climate matters, and voting for environmentally conscious candidates.
“Fundamentally, the main solution to a lot of the fire problems that we have [is] taking action on climate change,” Gonzalez said. “To be carbon-free is the ultimate end goal, and the sooner we reach that, the better it will be for nature and for people.”
Featured Photo caption: Experts say the California wildfires will irreversibly alter the natural world as we know it if we don’t take action against climate change within the next few years. Photo by Rebecca Kanaskie.