Climate change may spark serial Washoe wildfires

analysis of global warming data pinpoints great basin as a tinderbox

PHOTO/GERD ALTMAN: Recent vast wildfires are the vanguard of a cycle driven by global warming, climate scientists say.

Within 20 years, northern Washoe County may be the epicenter of persistent wildfires driven by increased temperatures and prevalent drought brought about by climate change.

That prediction is among several grim conclusions based on an analysis of climate research by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. The climate studies, taken together, are a glimpse of a planet undergoing rapid transition. The authors theorize that warming temperatures and changing rainfall will drive agriculture and temperate climates northward, while sea level rise will submerge coastlines and dangerous levels of humidity will swamp the Mississippi River valley.

In the West, particularly in the northern Great Basin, heat and long-lasting drought increase the likelihood that wildland fires that burn more than 12,000 acres will become more frequent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everything in people’s lives, but it’s relatively a short-term crisis compared to predictions of catastrophe caused by global warming. In the recent ProPublica/Times scenario, the massive changes make farming untenable in many areas. Large-scale migrations of people fleeing once hospitable regions would then occur. The project’s climate maps envision a transformed United States. Scroll down to the “very large fire prevalence” map and see Washoe County at its scarlet heart.

IMAGE/PROPUBLICA-NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: Wildfire map pinpoints Northern Nevada.

Temperature increases tied to burning fossil fuels

The analysis is new, but most of the data aren’t. Scientists around the globe and in Nevada have been compiling evidence of climate change for more than 30 years. Their research overwhelmingly shows that while changes in climate have happened for thousands of years, the latest temperature increases have been accelerated by atmospheric carbon propagated by the burning of fossil fuels.

Dan McEvoy, a climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, wasn’t involved in the recent analysis, but said the temperature data are consistent with the rising global temperatures scientists at the WRCC and elsewhere have documented. He said recent large-scale wildfires in the West are one effect of the drier conditions.

“The warming alone, and the warming that’s predicted to continue through the centuries, is driving a lot higher fire potential and the potential for larger fires,” McEvoy said. “(That’s) due to greater drying of vegetation on the surface, and things like a lack of soil moisture. That leads to what we’ve been seeing over the last few years, fires that have spread more intensely and more rapidly than in the past.”

He said forest management, which is not his field of expertise, also plays a role in the larger Sierra fires. But higher temperatures, drought and the resulting tinder-dry conditions are major causes of the conflagrations. In the Great Basin, where desert trees and brush rather than dense pine forests dominate the landscape, fire potential also is increased.

PHOTO/GChapel, Adobe Images.: Sparks shrouded in smoke from California wildfires on Sept. 22.

The Great Basin desert evolved after the last Ice Age

“(As for) Northern Nevada being the epicenter of fires, it’s not heavily forested, (but) we still have cheat grass and other invasive plants that dry out and burn fast,” he said. “That (map singling out Washoe and surrounding counties) caught a lot of people’s attention. Even these desert landscapes can burn pretty fast. It’s definitely something to pay attention to.”

McEvoy said it’s possible to determine how much the rapid temperature increases during the last 100 years are a result of human activity.

“There is a natural cycle involved, but rates of change and the level of warming we’ve seen is definitely due to (fossil fuel burning),” he said. “We would not be on this path to this amount of warming without that. It’s really taking off because of fossil fuel burning… We have climate modeling techniques where we can now separate the human factors and the natural factors and very clearly see what’s causing the warming.”

Research shows that long-term swings in temperature and rainfall – in other words, changes in the Earth’s climate — have occurred for millions of years and happened over the last several thousand years. Even during the last 2,000 years there have been extended periods of drought in what is now Nevada, some lasting more than a century. But the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that the burning of fossil fuels and the carbon that releases into the atmosphere has accelerated the process.

A cave tells a story of a 4,000-year drought

“On its own, nature is capable of being hotter and dryer in the Great Basin than it is today,” said    Matthew Lachniet, a paleoclimatologist and professor and chair of geology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “That should alert people that even just with natural climate variability humans could be looking at challenges in the future.”

Lachniet explores the ancient past to gain insight into what the planet may be facing in the decades and centuries to come. He and his colleagues recently compiled a 13,000-year-climate history from stalagmite specimens in Leviathan Cave, about 15 miles northeast of Rachel, Nev. The record in the limestone revealed a 4,000-year-long drought period in the Great Basin between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago. That dry spell, he said, was linked to warm Arctic seas and a lack of sea ice, as well as warming in the western Pacific Ocean.

PHOTO/JIM BOONE/GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK: Stalactites (top) and stalagmites (bottom) inside Leviathan Cave.

Such a long-term drought is a worst-case scenario, but even shorter dry periods would cause havoc for the water supply in the Colorado River Basin and the millions of people who depend on the resource.

“We know that droughts can last for a very long time,” Lachniet said. “So what we think of as a relatively stable climate is not necessarily a true conception. There can be intervals of 100, 200, even 300 years of dry climate even in what we think of as a modern climate setting. Then when you add human activity on top of that natural variability and if a natural (drought) cycle is happening at the same time, you get a double whammy of effects.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Cracked playa surface on the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach.

The new fossil fuel climate, he said, could end up making droughts permanent.

The verdict is in: climate change is real

It’s not news that 97% of published climate papers with a position on human-caused global warming agree that it is happening and that humans are the cause. Yet, the debate over climate change continues in the political, rather than the scientific, realm. Denial is common and that’s frustrating for scientists.

Lachniet said some people don’t want to hear the evidence or believe it. “There’s not much we can do about that,” he said. “But if somebody is just not interested in engaging in objective reality, it’s kind of hard to have a conversation about science with them. Fortunately there are still a lot of people who are interested in learning the facts. As an educator, it’s one of my goals to present that information to people who are receptive to hearing about it.”

PHOTO/JOSH HAWKINS: Matthew Lachniet

Science, Lachniet said, should inform public policy. “All good policy will be informed by facts; it should hopefully comport with objective reality that can be illustrated.  Move away from objective facts – when up is down and right is left – and we can’t make policy when we’re in that state of mind.”

McEvoy also encounters people who don’t believe in climate change or say it’s happening, but has nothing to do with human activity.

“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around how people can’t accept it,” he said. “It’s not just one study, it’s studies going back 30 years. We’ve seen it happen and it’s still happening.  We have these records that now show, especially over the last 30 to 40 years, how much things have changed.”

Some deniers will never accept the evidence

Deniers will always be with us, he said. “All we can do is try to educate people, not necessarily just deniers, but people who may not be familiar with the basic evidence. (We should) provide resources where they can learn about it. It’s challenging and it’s frustrating, but we’re trying to get more people to accept facts for what they are.”

Meanwhile, the climate clock is ticking. Have we already reached a place where we can’t avoid tumbling into global catastrophe?

“The general consensus is that things can still be done,” McEvoy said. “…We’ve seen other countries make some pretty strong progress, decreasing use of coal and that sort of thing. It’s kind of hard individually to accept that little things that you are doing are going to help change things globally, but I think the first step is accepting that we need to work on making these changes and realize that.

“Coming together, not even necessarily as a whole country, but as a city or a state, can definitely make differences… Some might argue we’ve hit the tipping point or that we’re getting close to it. But I think there’s still hope at the larger scale.”

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