2016 wildfire season off to a fierce state, thanks to climate change
The 2016 wildfire season has begun with a vengeance. So far this year, more than 1.8 million acres have already burned, and summer heat is set to scorch the West this weekend. High temperatures are likely to break records and further dry out an already parched region.
To make matters worse, California has just entered its fifth year of drought conditions. Lake Meade hit an all-time record low in May, and another two-foot drop is expected in June. Scientists believe climate change continues to impact weather patterns, altering precipitation across the globe,, and exacerbating drought conditions.
El Nino offers little help
Despite a strong El Niño that created heavy snowfalls in Northern California during March, early spring warming has melted nearly all of it away in the central and southern Sierra Nevada's. Snowpack in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains only contains about six percent of the normal amount of water for this time of year, leaving much of the southern portion of California in "exceptional drought" conditions according the United States Drought Monitor published in early June.
What does all this mean?
There is currently a significantly greater risk of wildfires that may threaten those living in the wildland-urban fire interface in the West, and especially in southern California, with red flag warnings likely being prevalent throughout the summer months. Last year was the worst year on record for wildfires, with 10.12 million acres burned. Two of the fires that burned last year ranked in the top ten most destructive fires ever for the state - the Valley and Butte fires.
2016: A repeat of 2015?
This year, with over 1.8 million acres already burned, predictions about the wildfire season might be on target or possibly even worse. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) predicted a higher than normal risk for southern California beginning in June. Northern California is likely to see a higher than normal risk beginning in July and continuing through August.
To help understand the impact of climate change and wildfires, Climate Central has produced a map that shows where wildfires are burning across the United States and includes data regarding number of fires in the state, total number of people at high-risk, and acres burning for each fire. The interactive map also indicates how many more large fires (1000 acres or more) have occurred in the state since 1970, a trend that is continuing to increase.
Increase seen in large fires
The site notes that since 1970, the number of large fires, or those that are at or exceed 1,000 acres has doubled, placing large numbers of people at high risk for losing their property or their lives. With May being the hottest ever on record, which follows a consistent trend for every single month so far this year, concern over water resources and dwindling supplies are likely to also play a factor in fighting fires in the near future.
Climate change is going to continue to impact weather patterns, altering precipitation patterns, and increasing the number of severe meteorological events that occur. As carbon emissions push temperatures higher, threats will increase, including wildfires. Preparedness and adaptation are key or events like the Fort McMurray, Alberta fire may become more common.