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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

California Burning

Air Date: Week of October 26, 2007

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Passing over Southern California at 3:10 p.m. on October 24, 2007, NASA's Terra satellite captured this image of the wildfires that have devastated the area. Red pixels indicate fire activity. These startling images show smoke billowing from the Southern California region out over the Pacific Ocean. (Courtesy of NASA)

Hundreds of thousands of Californians have been evacuated from their homes, as hundreds of acres have gone up in smoke. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood talks with University of Ottawa Professor Robert Mcleman about how development is fueling this disaster. Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research says climate change is exacerbating weather patterns that lead to dangerously dry conditions.



CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I’m Bruce Gellerman. In America’s West, October is typically the cruelest month. It’s when drought, winds, and forests as dry as kindling can conspire to create the perfect conditions for firestorms.

CURWOOD: This October has been particularly cruel in southern California. A dozen firestorms swept down the mountains as gusting Santa Ana winds funneled fires through canyons towards coastal cities and towns. Hundreds of square miles were scorched. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee, and a state of emergency was declared.

MAN: Up here the roof was on fire. The coffee shop. But it was so fast of a wind that it was white fire.

MAN 2: And a friend of ours’ house that was framed with steel melted right down to the cement.

WOMAN: The fire creates its own force. It’s not just the fire and wind, it’s worst than that and it’s like a blowtorch.

MAN 3: I guess you get so dehydrated you start getting headaches then you have trouble breathing and then your nose starts bleeding.

WOMAN 2: I’m interested to see what FEMA does. We’re the rich, we’re the famous—or that’s the perception of Malibu—and we have a famous governor. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens to these fire victims.

CURWOOD: And yet, despite the dangers the California dream still entices. So far this decade, some 450,000 people have moved into previously wild areas in the country, and more than half of them chose Southern California. Robert McLeman, professor of Geography at the University of Ottawa, says people know what to expect when they move to the Golden State—and still, they come.

Passing over Southern California at 3:10 p.m. on October 24, 2007, NASA's Terra satellite captured this image of the wildfires that have devastated the area. Red pixels indicate fire activity. These startling images show smoke billowing from the Southern California region out over the Pacific Ocean. (Courtesy of NASA)

MCLEMAN: And when it’s not dry, when it’s wet, there’s also the danger of mudslides or land slips in those same locations. So there are very good reasons why up until recently people did not choose to live in such areas because they were marginal areas for people to live in. So from a scientific sense, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In a practical sense, after the smoke clears, a lot of people have their personal family worth is tied up in that property. And if we were to tell them after the fires that ‘no, you are not allowed to rebuild in these places,’ we’re essentially telling them that ‘your land is now valueless.’ You know, that’s a difficult thing to tell people and probably given the way things work, you know, it would involve lawsuits and a lot of conflict between landowners and the government.

CURWOOD: What makes sense for policy makers to do in a situation like this?

MCLEMAN: It requires a lot of, quite frankly, bravery from an elected official to tell people who have vested economic interests in these areas to say ‘no, we’re going to put the breaks on development and we’re going to discourage people from living in hazardous areas.’ One of the things that governments can do on all levels—from federal right down to local—is to stop subsidizing future development of these types of properties in hazardous areas. And by subsidies I mean, for example, if somebody living up in the dry hills of California wanted to build a nice mansion up there but they were forced to pay the real cost of fire protection, the real cost of water, the true cost of electricity, those prices would be very prohibitive and would discourage a lot of that type of development. I hope that the policy makers do have such courage because there are some tough decisions to be made. These areas are not going to become more suitable for habitation in the future; they’ll only become less suitable.

CURWOOD: Over the next 30 or 40 years, we’re going to see the population of the U.S. go from about 300 million people to over 400 million people. Where are these people going to go if there are now some areas—some coastal areas, some dry hill areas, some drought-prone areas—that maybe don’t make sense to settle?

MCLEMAN: Well a lot will depend on two factors: market forces and social perceptions of where it’s nice to live. Market forces—how long can the government afford to essentially subsidize people living on the Florida coast and in the hills of California and so on, where the government is going to continue to have to, essentially bail people out when there are natural disasters? If it comes to the point where the government starts to remove those subsidies, then the sheer force of market—that when the household has to you know, decide ‘can we afford to pay these increased bills for insurance, for utilities, for infrastructure and so on?’ it may force people to make changes if they decide where they’re going to live.

The other is social perception. Right now, it’s cool to live in California. The California lifestyle is something that many Americans wish to emulate and that’s reinforced by popular culture. At the moment, it’s not perceived to be cool across much of America to live in Buffalo, New York or Eerie, Pennsylvania or Cleveland, Ohio. Maybe that will change. Maybe the idea of a nice cold winter in the mountains of New Hampshire will appeal to people in the future. But right now, that’s not the sort of dynamic we have. People want to live in the Sun Belt and enjoy that type of lifestyle.

CURWOOD: What might we expect in terms of mass migrations in the United States? Places like Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit aren’t particular popular right now but boy, they’re right alongside a quarter of the world’s fresh water.

MCLEMAN: You’re right. And having those resources at their disposal will be an attraction in the future. Particularly, quite frankly, in the coming decade as water becomes scarce around cities like Atlanta, many cities in Texas and Oklahoma and so on, where if households do have to start paying exorbitant prices for water, then maybe living in a place like Buffalo and Cleveland, where water is affordable as a resource, then maybe that will attract people. But there still has to be some sort of an economic engine in those cities to attract migrants from elsewhere. And perhaps that will come. Again, the free market will decide that.

CURWOOD: Robert McLeman is a professor of geography at the University of Ottawa. So, has the time come to leave southern California?

WOMAN: No, we’ve never thought of moving because of the fire danger.

WOMAN 2: Wildfire, earthquakes, you know, I made that decision a long time ago when I moved from Philadelphia to California that you know, you’re more likely to get hit by a car.

WOMAN 3: Yeah, I am actually thinking of moving.

MAN: Yeah, the only way I’d every move is if all these pretty girls moved.

GELLERMAN: Californians have come to expect wildfires, but scientists say the fires have changed. They’re more intense, they last longer and they’re more destructive. They call them megafires. Between 1986 and 2004 there were four times as many major fires as there were in the 16 years before that. Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says this isn’t due to just cyclical variation in the weather: it’s climate change.

TRENBERTH: One of the interesting things is about how climate change has actually occurred across North America and it’s quite different than many other places all around the world. In general, with global warming, there has been an increase in temperature but the main increases in temperature have occurred in the landmasses. The exception is the region east of the Rockies. And what has happened in that region—because of changes in atmospheric circulation—is that it’s become a lot wetter and it’s also become cloudier. And so the warming has not been as great. But there has been climate change. What has actually happened this year is a reversal of that pattern, a relaxation if you like, of this wetter and cloudier pattern. And so we’ve developed this drought in the southeast and in some ways, the eastern parts of the United States are more vulnerable for a much larger climate change as we move into the future of exactly this nature because the warming that has occurred in that region is much less than we expect based on the climate models.

Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth is Head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. (Courtesy of The National Center for Atmospheric Research)

GELLERMAN: We’ve had devastating droughts before—I’m thinking of the Dust Bowl, when two thirds of the United States was dying of thirst. What makes you so sure that this is climate change?

TRENBERTH: Well what we can do is play God in some sense. We can run our climate models and with the changes in composition of the atmosphere—the increases in carbon dioxide—and we can run it without those and we can see what the difference is. And what we find with our climate models is that—in terms of the global mean temperatures—that there’s a separation somewhere around in the 1970s. And so the human influence on climate has emerged if you like from the noise of natural variability since about 1970 and it’s sort of growing in time and then we can also look at patterns of change. In general there has been an overall shift in where storms are occurring in both hemispheres. They’re tending to move a little bit more polewards, a little bit more summer-like regime if you like or summer’s becoming a little longer. Something like that. And it has big impacts on—especially precipitation, changing rain to snow and changing where the rain actually is occurring.

GELLERMAN: But how does that produce a drought in the Southeast and wildfires out West?

TRENBERTH: The warming itself means that there’s extra drying in places where there’s moisture available. That’s the first thing that happens, you know, if there’s been a shower and the sun comes out and the ground is wet, the first thing that happens is all the puddles dry up and then the temperature goes up. And so there’s a petitioning of this extra heat that’s available. Some of it goes into raising temperature and some of it goes into drying, increasing the evaporation. So in places where there is a pattern of the weather which might be set up by something else such as El Nino, if there is a tendency for a natural drought, the drought tends to set in quicker. It becomes more intense and the consequences are greater because of the wilting of plants and it produces a situation ripe for wildfires. And in other places, where the moisture is being transported and getting caught up in storms, you can actually end up having increases in floods.

GELLERMAN: Well you mention El Nino. Could this be El Nino and not something to do with climate change?

TRENBERTH: Well El Nino helps to change the patterns of weather around the world and determines where the droughts tend to occur. In this case we’ve got the opposite of El Nino. It’s actually called La Nina, which refers to cooler than normal sea surface temperatures in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, and that changes the wave patterns around the world. It changes the jet stream and where the storms track overall and across North America, it generally tends to push the jet stream and the storm tracks a little farther to the north and so it favors drier and warmer conditions in the south and that can occur all the way from California through to Florida.

GELLERMAN: So your long-term forecast for the far West and the southeast of the United States—are we seeing the specter of things to come?

TREMBERTH: Yes, I think we are. This is an exaggeration if you like, of things that do occur naturally and that’s really the way to think about how climate change has an impact on things. We can see this in other major events that have occurred around the world and one of the most spectacular ones was the drought and the subsequent heat waves in Europe in 2003, which led to over 30,000 deaths, where the temperatures during the summer were just so far beyond anything that had been seen before that it simply could not have happened by natural variability alone. And if we look and analyze that record and do all kinds of computer experiments with climate models we can indeed identify that yes, there was a contribution of natural variability but there was also a contribution of global climate change from human activities that contributed to that particular event. In other words, it would not have happened without the human influence on climate change.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Trenberth, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

TRENBERTH: You’re most welcome.

GELLERMAN: Climatologist Kevin Trenberth was a lead author of the climate change reports written for the IPCC, the organization which shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.



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