The BC Wildfires and Smoke Choking the Northwest

A couple links and commentary featured here. The first link, on  situation in Seattle, puts its finger on how awful this has been. The air quality has been worse than Beijing. And as she says, it really “feels wrong”. The thing you love Seattle for in the summer, the generally clean air (at least outside the I5 corridor and downtown) , fresh feeling and natural beauty-has been choked off since Aug. 1st. You can’t really go outside for very long and any vigorous activities are not advised, if not downright unhealthy. I have heard, at least in one case, of an ER being full of people with respiratory problems. For those with these kinds of problems-the smoke is doing real harm. (I may write more on this coming up if I am able)

The bigger underlying point and question, is this the new normal? Wildfires have already  been increasing with global temperature rises (this year, worst ever in recorded history in  BC, two years ago-worst ever in Washington state, etc., etc.),  and are predicted to get much worse as climate change goes forward.

The Northwest today poses a smoggy, hazy, and disturbing picture of how quickly things can go from good to horrible. This should make people reflect on how this future of climate change and overall environmental degradation-and the refusal by the powers that be, and notably Trump, to do anything except make the situation worse-is completely untenable and illegitimate. And the consequences, needless to say, are and will be much worse for the majority of impoverished people all over the planet.

I’m posting for context,  a piece that I wrote in 2015- a previous, hot dry, wildfire-filled summer in the west:



Wildfires in the West and the Threat of Climate Change’s “New Normal”

Wildfires this summer have swept the west . Massive amounts of forest, brush and grasslands and hundreds of homes and buildings have been burned.  Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from towns and rural areas in the fire zones, and whole towns evacuated.  All over the west people have had to abandon homes and at some times even escape through active burn zones.

Smoke has at times blanketed large parts of the west, including major cities like Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, and has been detected as far away as the Atlantic Ocean. Health alerts have been issued in various areas because of the smoke. People with health issues have been warned to stay inside at certain times and areas, depending on wind direction.

The fires have been ferocious and widespread. Fires have raged from Northern Mexico to Alaska, from Washington State east to Montana. As of Sept 3rd there were still 58 large fires (more than 100 acres in timber or 300 acres in grassland/rangelands) burning in 6 western U.S. states. Dozens of fires continue to burn in British Columbia. More than 5 million acres burned in Alaska  ( )  alone- where over 700 fires were burning at one time earlier in the summer. Washington State ( ) has seen its worst wildfires in recorded history, with the massive Okanogan complex fire now the largest in state history, surpassing the previous largest fire which was just last year.  This fire at one point covered more than 403 square miles, which “if it were a city, would be the 10th largest in the continental U.S. by area” according to NBC. Three firefighters were killed in this fire near Twisp Washington, when their vehicle crashed off an embankment and they were caught in the fire. Wildfires in Washington as a whole have burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

This fire season is smashing all records.  8.4 million acres have burned. This is the largest acreage burned in any January-September period in history. It’s almost sure that by the end of the wildfire season- sometime this fall or early winter- the amount of land burned will easily surpass the previous record of 9.7million acres in 2006.

Causes of the Fires, the Changing Climate and Ecosystem Disruption

Forest fires have been a natural phenomenon for millions of years. But the extremity, frequency, and impact of what is going on now aren’t due just to natural causes, but also human activity. This year the west has been gripped by record-breaking hot temperatures and drought. In Seattle in June for example the average high temperature was 3 degrees Farenheit higher than the previous record highs. And the hot temperatures in the west are part of what has already been the warmest Jan-July in recorded history worldwide. A main cause of the increasingly hot temperatures this year, and the predominant cause of the trend of warming temperatures over the past couple decades, is human-induced global warming. Global warming is caused by the continual build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the relentless burning of fossil fuels and other destructive practices of the system of capitalism-imperialism.

Record temperatures have interacted with a deep drought to cause tinder dry conditions in the west. California has been in extreme drought for 4 straight years. But now drought has enveloped the entire Pacific Northwest up to Alaska- and spread inland. This past winter saw snow-packs in the mountains way below normal, 16% of average in Washington and 5% in California. The summer has also been very dry, until August, when luckily there was some much-needed rainfall.

One apparent cause of the drought has been a blob of warm water that has stretched from California up to Alaska. Ocean temperatures in these waters have been 2 to 7 degrees F higher than normal.  The blob is connected to a very persistent ridge of high pressure that has repeatedly formed off the west coast. All the causes and features of this ridge and the blob are beyond what can be gone into here- but essentially this has caused storms being pushed to the north and warmer, dryer conditions in the west. The scientists who discovered the blob say it is a natural phenomena. Its full interactions with climate change are not totally understood yet. But the drought and warming temperatures in the west appear to be a combination of human caused climate change with these other natural phenomena. And the changes happening now are also an indication of what the future likely holds as climate change worsens.

The drought and warmer temperatures have caused huge and frightening disruptions in the ecosystem of the pacific coast. The lack of snow melting because of the very low snow pack has had many affects. Snowpack in the mountains allows a release of water into rivers, lakes, soils and forests even into the  summer months which are always drier than spring. So the melting snow normally allows things to stay somewhat more hydrated in summer. But not this year.

The lack of snow to melt this year has caused rivers to be extremely warm. Rivers warmed so much in July and early August that sockeye salmon trying to migrate upriver to spawn in the Columbia River were dying by the thousands. Fisheries officials predicted fully 80% of the over 500,000 sockeye running into the Columbia would die. This situation was spread up and down the coast, forcing shut downs of many fisheries. Luckily there has been some mitigating of the high temperatures with cooler temperatures and rain that has come in mid-August when other salmon began running.

A team of scientists who have studied glaciers in the North Cascades mountains in Washington for decades said this year as much of 5-10% of these glaciers melted this year alone, due to lack of insulating snow and record temperatures. They called the situation “disastrous”, and warned of a future when these beautiful and much needed glaciers may entirely melt away.

The warm waters along the coastal ocean have also caused a steep decline in nutrients in the water, causing starvation conditions for many species. This has led to the deaths of possibly tens of thousands of young sea lions in California and Oregon, and some sea birds. The warmer ocean has also been linked to a massive bloom of toxic algae, contaminating shellfish in large areas along the coast.

The coastal ecosystem has been shaken and disrupted. Many scientists are predicting that whether the current warm conditions in the eastern Pacific are naturally caused or not, they are a clear harbinger of what is to come with climate change. The great danger is that these changes may well represent a “new normal” that climate change is bringing.

Fires in the western forests and rangelands are a normal feature of these lands throughout history. And in many important ways fires can play a regenerating role, clearing away fuel and making room for new growth and diversity of species. Some trees even rely on fire in order to open up cones to spread new seeds. So in a general sense, fire is a needed and normal feature that can contribute to building healthy forests and lands. But what is being seen now are much more widespread fires that are beyond “normal”.

The National Wildlife Federation says when you look at the number of major wildfires and area burned in the Western U.S. from the period 1970-86 compared to 1986 to 2003,  the number of major wildfires has increased 4 fold, and the area of forest burned increased 6 fold. The fire season also lasts 78 days longer.  Nine out of the 10 worst fire seasons in history have occurred since the year 2000. So this increase in fires is clearly linked to the rising temperature, drying conditions, spreading infestation of pests like bark beetles, and more lightning being brought by climate change.

Another problem is the sprawl of new housing, cities and towns eating into natural areas driven by a system that sees the environment as a non-factor. This has led to fragmentation of forests and more susceptibility to fires being sparked.

 Climate Change Threatens the Northwest Temperate Rainforest

The rainforest on the Olympic peninsula in Washington is one of the richest remaining temperate rainforests on the planet. It’s a central part of Olympic national park which is nearly 1 million acres of preserved wilderness so rich in animal and plant life that it has been declared a world heritage site. The park is really a natural wonder, a place of immense beauty- huge conifer trees draped in moss and lichens, high mountains capped with snow and glaciers, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers in summer, stunning river valleys that are home to elk and bear and cascading rivers that provide habitat for many runs of salmon.

The rainforest here gets an average of about 200 inches of rain a year. But this year even the rainforest on the Olympic peninsula in Washington has caught on fire.  Because of low winter snowpack and an abnormally warm and dry spring and early summer, a fire was sparked in the Queets river valley rainforest that has burned all summer. The Queets valley is a place of indescribable richness. It’s magical- and now the upper regions are on fire. The fire up the Queets is the largest since Olympic national Park was established. Fire on this wet side of the Olympic mountains is exceedingly rare, happening only every several hundred years. But now predictions are that with climate change bringing higher temperatures, less snowfall and possibly more droughts in spring and summer, fire could become a more regular feature of the rainforest.

Climate change threatens the future of the Olympic rainforest as well as temperate rainforests up and down the west coast, particularly the magnificent redwoods Northern California.  A study by scientists from the Geos Institute in Feb. 2015 concluded, “International climate change and rainforest experts warned that without drastic and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and new forest protections, the world’s most expansive stretch of temperate rainforests from Alaska to the coast redwoods will experience irreparable losses.” This study also said that it is not too late to preserve these rainforest ecosystems-but what is needed are quick efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect vegetation.

The future is unwritten. Whether these wondrous lands, and the rest of our world and humanity is defended and protected, depends on what we do. And specifically whether we fight this system that is bringing immense destruction to the natural world, to save these lands and bring into being a new system through revolution that can protect the natural world.

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