Environment

Lightning Strikes: Get Used to Catastrophic Wildfires and Worse

In California there were 8,000 lightning strikes in one event, and that was months before fire season. There is more of that in store across the West.
"This is a specter against which grand inquisitors and wars against terrorism are powerless to protect us," Mike Davis wrote in a 2003 essay titled "The Perfect Fire," which was composed against the backdrop of a massive firestorm that callously rampaged across Southern California, burning thousands of homes and billions of dollars in its wake. "It is, of course," he added, "the right time of the year for the end of the world."

It still is. In late June, an ahead-of-schedule dry lightning event sparked more than 8,000 strikes across California, setting off over 800 fires, many of which are still burning as I write. And if you're the praying type, you might want to start praying they can be put out before the conventional time window for such events arrives in late July and August.

"This doesn't bode well for the fire season," AccuWeather.com meteorologist Ken Clark told the Associated Press in June, shortly after the lightning hit. "We're not even into the meat of the fire season at this point, and the brush is extremely dry. It's not going to get any better," he added. "It's going to get worse."

How much worse? How much time have you got? You might want to spend it packing.

According to a study published in Science last year, the Southwest region of the United States will enter permanent drought by 2050, and that's being optimistic. The seven states dependent upon the Colorado River Basin -- Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and California -- will most likely war over what remains of its diminishing water resources. The region's thirsty population will also be beset by rampant firestorms, as portions of the snowpack that remains bypass the liquid stage and evaporate into thin, dry air.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists argued in the paper "Early Warning Signs of Global Warming: Droughts and Fires," published before global warming consciousness took hold this century, "Warmer global temperatures are expected to cause an intensification of the hydrologic cycle, with increased evaporation over both land and water." As the same organization explained in an analysis of the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report, "Nearly 90 percent of the 29,000 observational data series examined revealed changes consistent with the expected response to global warming."

In other words, dry lightning strikes in June might be "climatologically rare" now, as National Weather Service science officer John Juskie explained in the same Associated Press report. But thanks to human-induced global warming, they will soon be utterly logical.

"In the Rocky Mountains, fire season has grown by almost two months over the past decade as a result of climbing temperatures," explains Sierra Club spokesperson Kristina Johnson. "And as we see more droughts in California, we can expect more catastrophic wildfires."

Makes sense to me. But not to some meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including one I interviewed about this matter.

"Microclimate forecasting is hard," dodged Brian Tentinger, meteorologist for the NOAA's San Francisco and Monterey Bay Area Weather Forecast Office. "It's warm, but sometimes certain conditions set up the perfect storm. That's just the way things happen. Yes, there have been record-setting temperatures, but I wouldn't say the lightning storms portend a trend. I would be disinclined to say that it worries me."

Nice sentiment, but unfortunately that kind of reassurance from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Weather Service is, pardon the pun, half-baked. It ignores the data at hand, which is growing more voluminous by the moment.

Barely a week before the so-called freak lightning storms set fire to California, the NOAA, Tentinger's own agency, released an exhaustive report on extreme weather events specific to North America, explaining that there is an unequivocal trend upward for abnormally hot days and nights, severe droughts and lower precipitation, especially in the Western regions of the nation.

Mix all those variables together, and you have 8,000 lightning strikes coming out of nowhere to torch a cumulative land mass the size of Los Angeles, the largest city in California and the second-largest in the United States. Tentinger might be disinclined to worry, but he's growing more alone by the day in that confidence. And even he, once pressed, gives way.

"If we keep having continuously dry rainfall seasons and conditions," Tentinger admitted, "then it's going to be a problem. If they persist, you're going to see the type of events that we've seen this year continue."

But the nightmare for the left coast isn't just about conflagration by lightning. "Wildfires are just one of the disasters we can expect if we don't act now to curb global warming," the Sierra Club's Johnson adds. "There will also be widespread floods, famine and disease."

The fallout from these natural catastrophes will dramatically reshape the nation, especially California, in ways that are unimaginable and dystopian to the extreme. Native species such as the coastal redwood and the artlessly named fire poppy could retreat or die off entirely due to warming temperatures. The rising mercury has already opened the door to all manner of pestilence, including bark beetles, whose decimation of trees across California, Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere has left behind dead husks just begging for a spark -- say, from a freak lightning storm or 8,000 -- to come along and send them homeward to the forest in the sky. The paper "Climate Change and the Future of California's Endemic Flora," published on the open-access science site PLoS One, explains that "across all scenarios, the general trend is that diversity shifts toward the coast and northward."

The biodiversity of all other regions in California? Toast. Relatively speaking.

But the jostling and posturing of scientists, politicians, producers and consumers is a smokescreen for the patently obvious, summed up best by Bob Dylan in "Subterranean Homesick Blues:" "You don't need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows." Just take a look around you; that should be all you need to let you know that things are literally getting hot, heavy and, especially, high. The planet's carbon dioxide emissions are higher now than they've been in the last 650,000 years. (That is not a typo.) Methane is similarly through the roof. Record-setting temperatures on land and at sea have altered the geographical, and geopolitical, face of the planet. Dry lightning storms are arriving months ahead of schedule and burning areas the size of Los Angeles in the blink of an eye. Species are dying off or moving to areas with more moisture.

It might not be too long until we follow them, out of hot zones once known as home, and into an uncertain future of vanishing resources. We can use the freak lightning to brighten our nomadic trudge.
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World