California’s record-breaking wildfires this past season have been an unmitigated disaster with respect to loss of life, property, impact on human health, and in multiple other ways. And as if all of that was not bad enough, the impact on carbon emissions into the atmosphere was equally catastrophic. The wildfires were deadly and cost billions of dollars but were also terrible for the environment and for the public’s health.
According to estimates from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the California wildfires released emissions equivalent to about 68 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That is equal to the emissions from generating one year’s worth of electricity in the state, or about 15% of the total annual emissions in the state of California.
It is a vicious circle in which the changes to the climate that have lengthened the fire season and shortened the precipitation season are creating additional contributions to the warming of the climate.
Over the past century, California has warmed by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit. That extra-warmed air sucks water out of plants and soils, resulting in trees, shrubs, and rolling grasslands that are dry and primed to burn. That vegetation-drying effect compounds with every additional degree of warming. Plants lose their water more efficiently as temperatures get higher.
The result is that wildfires are increasing in size both in California and across the western United States. Fire experts at Columbia University estimate that since the 1980s, the warming climate has contributed to an extra 10 million acres of burning in western forests – an area about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
It’s a bad situation that is getting worse.
Photo, posted October 11, 2017, courtesy of Bob Dass via Flickr.