Bambi had wildfires. But not as bad as *this* (updated with CO2 Q&A)

October 24, 2007 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Atmosphere, Bambi, California, Carbon dioxide, Climate change, CO2, Disney, Emissions, Greenhouse gases, Hollywood, Movies, wildfires | Leave a comment

Bambi forest fire

Older child explaining to her younger brothers how wildfires are part of the natural cycle in California, but this time, things are … different:

Bambi survived wildfires. They are part of the circle of life. But it’s not usually as bad as this.

We wonder what is happening to wildlife?

A prolonged drought is combining with high temperatures and flame-promoting winds to provide optimum conditions for wildfires. (Echoes of the situation in Italy and Greece are heard crying from the not-so-distant past.)

Although we cannot pin one extreme case of wildfires in one location in one year on climate change, these conditions are in line with the trends predicted by the IPCC, and the scenes may give some people (who seem to be triggered primarily by TV pictures and movies) at least pause for thought.

Our long-range wondering raises questions such as:

How much carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere by these fires, to worsen climate change?

So far, I have found one reference to that issue in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

CLIMATE CHANGE: Hotter world may fan flames
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

… Almost 20 million tons of greenhouse gases – the equivalent of what is emitted in one year by 3.6 million cars – have been spewed into the atmosphere, (Tom Bonnicksen, a California forest and wildfire expert) said.

“The problem isn’t global warming causing fires,” he said. “The real problem is these fires contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.” …

And here’s another update:

Experts: Wildfires only going to worsen

Many blame threat on global warming
Mike Lee, Union-Tribune Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

… In the 1960s, wildfires burned roughly 4.5 million acres in the United States each year. Since 2000, the average annual total is more than 7 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Almost all of the country’s largest fires in recent years have been in the West.

… The amount of greenhouse gases emitted by last week’s blazes in Southern California equal that of roughly 500,000 cars traveling on the road for one year, according to the state Air Resources Board.

That’s one way to assess this disaster. (Are the media outside CA picking up on it?) Wildfires need to be prevented from happening, and brought under control as soon as possible when they do happen, because they aggravate climate change. Instead of discussing an unknown—such as what proportion of these fires, with what probability, is due to climate change—it makes more sense to ask scientists to clarify and advise on the extent to which emissions of greenhouse gases are increased by the recent wildfires in Southern California, Italy and Greece.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, BBC has a useful map of the California wildfires in a special report, and has links to other maps.

The kids asked me what information Arnie (read that as ‘the State of California’) might have had before this tragic outbreak, about how climate change may affect the frequency and ferocity of wildfires in California in the future. The best I can find in the limited time I have online tonight is this excerpt from a biennial report, soon due for an update:

Scenarios of Climate Change in California: An Overview. FINAL report
from California Energy Commission, Public Interest Energy Research
(PIER) Program, California Climate Change Center, publication #
CEC-500-2005-186-SF, posted: February 27, 2006. (PDF file, 53 pages,
1.2 megabytes)

9.2. Wildfires
Fire is an important natural disturbance within many California ecosystems that promotes vegetation and wildlife diversity, releases nutrients and eliminates heavy fuel accumulations that can lead to catastrophic burns. The changing climate could alter fire regimes in ways that could have social, economic, and ecological consequences (McKenzie et al. 2004; Fried et al. 2004; Brown et al.
2004). Westerling and Bryant (2006) estimated future statewide wildfire risk from a statistical model based on temperature, precipitation, and simulated hydrologic variables. These are conservative estimates because they do not include effects of extreme fire weather, but implications are nonetheless quite alarming.

Projections made for the probabilities of “large fires”—defined as fires that exceed an arbitrary threshold of 200 hectares (approximately 500 acres)—indicate that the risk of large wildfires statewide would rise almost 35% by mid-century and 55% by the end of the century under a medium-high emissions scenario, almost twice that expected under lower emissions scenarios (Figure 10). Estimates of increased damage costs from the increases in fire season severity (Westerling and Bryant 2006) are on the order of 30% above current average annual damage costs. A second study explored, through a case study in Amador and El Dorado Counties, the effects of projected climate change on fire behavior, fire suppression effort, and wildfire outcomes (Fried et al. 2006). Climate and site-specific data were used in California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) standard models to predict wildfire behavior attributes such as rate of spread and burning intensity. The predicted wildfire outcomes were aggregated using the California Fire Economics Simulator version 2 (Fried and Gilless 1999), a stochastic computer model developed for CDF’s fire protection planning program. The study found an increase in the projected area burned (10%–20%) and number of escaped fires (10%–40%) by the end of century, under the drier climate scenarios (GFDL). However, the less dry model showed little change. Neither of these approaches for modeling the effects of climate change on wildfires considers the effects of the potential changes in wind conditions that may result from a changing climate, because the winds produced by GCMs are too coarse to be useful over most of the complex terrain in the California region. However, the strength and direction of winds can greatly influence fire behavior (Fried et al. 2004).

Although initial studies suggest that future climate change may decrease early fall Santa Ana Wind conditions in some regions (Miller and Schlegel 2006), further research is needed to more thoroughly characterize potential changes in wind conditions and their possible effects on wildfires in the state.

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