On Sunday, Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana. It wreaked havoc on communities, causing 150-mile per hour winds and powerful storm surges. The Caldor Fire in California has ravaged 320 miles of land and destroyed more than 700 buildings. It is now moving towards South Lake Tahoe. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the chaotic 2018 evacuation of Paradise during the Camp Fire–when 86 people died, many in their cars on the road out of town–evacuees sat in gridlock, desperate to flee the approaching flames. The blaze now threatens to destroy more than 34,000 structures.
Wildfires and hurricanes are very distinct disasters that have been supercharged with a common force, climate change. While scientists aren’t certain that warming the climate causes such disasters, they have proven time after time that it intensifies them. Vasu Misra, an atmospheric and climate scientist at Florida State University says that both are opposites of a warming climate. You have extremes from both ends – extreme dryness and very wet events happening simultaneously on one continent. And it is getting more difficult for people to escape them when they strike.
Keith Porter from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center says that “more frequent, severe and fast-growing wildfires or hurricanes increases the severity and frequency of disasters as well as evacuations” and reduces the time it takes to warn people. It’s becoming harder to predict how they will behave. The increase in hurricane intensity is due to rising ocean temperatures. Wildfires can grow at unprecedented speeds and force when the climate is hotter and dryer. Porter says that it is more difficult to make accurate assessments in a changing climate because an analyst cannot rely on the past behaviour of nature. We have less evidence and historical guidance to support costly evacuation decisions.
The already complicated situation of climate change will get more complex. Nnenia Campbell is a sociologe at the Natural Hazards Center. She says that with rapidly changing hazards like wildfires we see that people need to take quick decisions under uncertain circumstances. It’s complicated further by events such as the Covid-19 pandemic which sometimes means people need to make additional decisions.
The main causes of wildfires are heat and dryness. Climate change has helped sap the West of moisture, producing mountains of ultra-dry tinder. Historically, smaller fires would periodically clear out brush, but today a history of fire suppression means that fuel keeps building up. Issac, the battalion chief of communications at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (also known as Calfire), says that fires are becoming larger and more frequent than ever before. So when August rolls around or late July rolls around we see dry conditions which are undoubtedly a result climate change.
California used to suffer its most catastrophic wildfires in the autumn, when seasonal winds could push huge blazes like the Camp Fire, and before winter rains arrived to wet the landscape. The Dixie Fire is the second largest wildfire in California. It started in July and has burned almost 1,300 miles. The fire is still only half contained.
The wildfires are so intense and large that even experienced firefighters find it difficult to keep up with them. Some fires have become so intense that thunderclouds roll over the landscape, sparking new fires. Fires are also rapidly consuming the landscape. This makes it more difficult for Calfire and other agencies to plan evacuations. They use information such as temperature, humidity and prevailing wind to estimate the fire’s possible route and arrival times. Thomas Cova from the University of Utah studies wildfire evacuations. He says it’s difficult to predict what will happen in an unpredicted era. What’s happening is the time. This is what I believe, and that’s why the fires move faster. Firefighters are quick to say they have never witnessed fire move at such a rapid pace.
Calfire and other fire departments are not great at their jobs. South Lake Tahoe’s successful evacuation is proof of that. More than 20,000 people were able to get out of the flames, well before it reached the town edge.
Heat is a major factor in hurricanes. Misra from Florida State University says that “Coastal waters have been warming significantly.” The storm surged over the Gulf of Mexico and fed off abnormally hot water.
Complex phenomena like hurricanes can be complicated. There are many factors that influence the weather, such as the current state of the atmosphere. To fully comprehend the trends towards rapid intensification, scientists need to have more data. Misra says that warmer water does not mean all the storms making landfall in future will be stronger. This should be alarming.
The fact that moisture is more concentrated in warmer environments should be taken into consideration. Misra says that convection can occur under the right conditions. “When it occurs, there is more moisture extracted from the same amount of air in the future warmer climate.” The threat of a tropical cyclone–whether or not it intensifies rapidly in the future-–is far greater than it is now, with more rainfall coming out.” Hurricane winds become weaker once they make landfall because it no longer feeds on warm waters from the gulf. It still dumps rain on its way inland and could cause devastating flooding in the eastern and southern states.
Forecasters are able to accurately forecast the course of hurricanes days in advance, saving many lives and providing valuable data for state and local governments. Modeling will face new challenges as climate change changes the behavior of hurricanes. Misra says that most of the weather forecast models aren’t able to accurately predict rapid intensification. That is an enormous problem when preparing for the storm’s impact.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to assess their risk due to the extreme nature of natural disasters today. Ann Bostrom from the University of Washington, who is a researcher in risk communication, says that people set their expectations on prior experience. “This stuff is beyond what people have experienced.” “A hurricane, wildfire or other natural disaster that is rapidly intensifying can be more intense than what people are used to.” A person who may have stayed at home 20 years ago in the event of a catastrophe like this could find themselves today in great peril.
Rapid hurricane intensification poses a threat to everyone. However, the most dangerous is for those who are unable or unwilling to evacuate quickly. Kyle Burke Pfeiffer is the director of National Preparedness Analytics Center, Argonne National Laboratories. He says that many of those living along the coast are extremely rich or very poor. He said that the poor may not have access to vehicles or have limited funds to move from their homes or jobs. Many times they live in buildings that cannot withstand the extreme external loads imposed upon them by hazards such as hurricanes.
California is facing a similar issue: Rising sea level has caused more Californians to move eastward into California’s urban wildland interface. This is where the city meets the forest. Paradise and South Lake Tahoe are two examples. Cova from the University of Utah says, “With more people in these areas-and [the fact that] the areas are] dryer–leads us to more ignitions close to communities.” Fires are more likely to begin closer to than, and to move much faster. It can also affect evacuations as the available time may be less than you require, such as in Paradise. Retirees are particularly attracted to these areas, while older people with mobility issues will have a harder time evacuating when a fire is near.
Is there any way to ensure that people are safe when faced with such huge threats? Certainly, scientists will improve their forecasting models, which will help sharpen the accuracy of alerts. The possibility of a smaller number of wildfires in mountain areas could be reduced by controlling the burns. And gulf states can provide people with transportation and lodging to ensure that everyone can evacuate, not just the well-to-do.
Campbell, of the Natural Hazards Centre says that emergency planning should be discussed at the local level. It’s easier to talk about individuals and not the limitations that groups and communities face. That’s what I am particularly concerned about.” Let’s be clear: there is no single solution. Each community faces its unique constraints, such as lack of transportation. Therefore, each plan must be customized.
This higher level conundrum is more about where it’s safe for us to build our communities. Americans don’t live in danger from ever-more powerful wildfires or hurricanes. They’re moving there. Pfeiffer says, “I believe we should have some national discussions about how we design and live our lives in 21st-century.” Climate risks will be a growing problem that we have to deal with.
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Publiated at Wednesday, 01 September 2021 16:07.04 +0000