Wildfires Are Scorching the American West

Summer is wildfire season in the American West and it is off to a blazing start.

As of Monday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, fifty-nine large wildfires – defined as greater than 100 acres – are currently burning in nearly a dozen states. These include Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

One of the newest conflagrations, the Ferguson Fire, is raging just outside of Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. At the height of tourist season, the fire has closed down Highway 140, one of the main entrances to the Park. It has forced the evacuation of several communities along Yosemite’s western edge as well as some hotels inside the Park. Ignited on Friday, the fire has burned more than 9,000 acres and is only 2% contained. Sadly, it has also claimed the life of one firefighter who was battling the flames.

Another hard hit state is Colorado, where seven large fires are burning. The largest is the Spring Creek Fire, which stared at the end of June and has burned more than 108,000 acres in Costilla and Huerfano counties.

These huge fires are being fueled by extremely hot and dry conditions that have left the region’s vegetation susceptible to any type of spark. Just a few days ago, excessive heat advisories were in effect for a large swath of the west as temperatures soared well above average.

Year to date, 3.3 million acres in the US have been charred, which is above average for this point in the season. The country’s worst wildfire year on record was 2015 when more than ten million acres burned.

Ferguson Fire in the Sierra National Forest, outside of Yosemite National Park in California. Credit: InciWeb/BlakeScott

Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father of Weather Observers

As the main author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson is regarded as one of this country’s Founding Fathers. He was also an astute and systematic weather observer.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805. Credit: NYHS

In the summer of 1776, Jefferson was in Philadelphia, PA to sign the Declaration of Independence.  While there, he purchased a thermometer and a barometer – new and expensive weather equipment at that time. For the next 50 years, he kept a meticulous weather journal.  He recorded daily temperature data wherever he was – at home in Virginia or while traveling.

On July 4, 1776, Jefferson noted that the weather conditions in Philadelphia were cloudy with a high temperature of 76°F.

In an effort to understand the bigger picture of climate in America, Jefferson established a small network of fellow observers around Virginia as well as contacts in a few other states. According to records at Monticello, his estate in Virginia, he hoped to establish a national network for weather observations. While this plan did not come to fruition during his lifetime, today’s National Weather Service considers him the “father of weather observers.”

Happy Independence Day!

An excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Weather Journal, July 1776. Credit: NCDC

Names for the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season

Today is the first day of the Atlantic Hurricane Season. Although one named storm, Alberto, already formed this year, the season officially runs from June 1 to November 30.

Since 1950, each tropical storm or hurricane to form in the Atlantic has been given a unique name. They come from a set of six rotating lists produced by the World Meteorological Organization. A name is retired only when a storm was particularly noteworthy – causing a large number of fatalities or an extraordinary amount of damage. Some notable retired Atlantic Basin storm names include: Andrew, Harvey, Irma, Irene, Katrina, Maria, and Sandy. The names for this year’s storms are listed below.

Credit: NOAA

2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook: Average to Above Average

The number of hurricanes that develop in the Atlantic basin varies from year to year. For 2018, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting an average to above average season.

Tropical cyclones, known as hurricanes in the United States, develop around the globe at different times of the year. In this country, we are most impacted by the Atlantic hurricane season, which affects the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. It runs from June 1 through November 30.

Overall, NOAA predicts a 70% likelihood of ten to sixteen named storms forming this season, of which five to nine could become hurricanes, including one to four major hurricanes. An average season produces twelve named storms, including six hurricanes and three that become major hurricanes. A major hurricane is one that is rated category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

This outlook, according to NOAA, is based on the possibility of the development of a weak El Niño and near-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic. El Niño conditions in the Pacific tend to cause increased wind shear in the Atlantic, which suppresses tropical development in that basin.

Last year, 2017, was the most active Atlantic Hurricane season in more than a decade.  It produced seventeen named storms, including Harvey, Irma, and Maria. But regardless of the number of storms that actually form this year, it is important to remember that it only takes one land-falling system in your community to make it an impactful season.

Source: NOAA

 

Red, Blue, and Green: The Environment Was Not Always a Polarized Issue

Earth Day is a time to focus on the environment. These days, however, it is hard to discuss the topic in the US without politics coming into play. While there have always been debates about land and resource uses, the issue today is more polarized then ever with the division almost always running down party lines. Those in favor of environmental protection and conservation are usually Democrats and those pushing for economic and commercial development tend to be Republicans. This type of tribal divide, however, was not always the case. There is a long history of Republicans taking action to protect the environment.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, signed the Yosemite Land Grant. This piece of legislation gave Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. Championed by Senator John Conness (R-CA), it was first time in US history that land was designated for preservation and public use.

This historic legislation set the precedent for Yellowstone, which spreads across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to become this country’s first official National Park in 1872. Established by Congress, it was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican.  Yosemite eventually also became a National Park in 1890 under President Benjamin Harrison, also a Republican.

Coming into office in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican from NY, became known as the “Conservation President.” Using the power of the presidency, he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land. According to the NPS, this included the establishment of 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.

While also steadfast in his belief about utilizing the country’s natural resources, he understood the necessity of ensuring their sustainability. As such, he created the US Forest Service in 1905 as a division of the Department of Agriculture. He wanted to conserve forests for continued use.

By 1916, there were 35 National Parks and monuments across the US. To manage them all, President Woodrow Wilson – a Democrat – signed the Organics Act, creating the National Parks Service as a bureau within the Department of the Interior.

In the 1970’s, the environment returned to the national agenda, but with a new focus. After the 1969 Cuyahoga River fiire and the oil spill off Santa Barbara, CA, the rampant industrial pollution and deterioration of the nation’s natural environment became apparent. These human-caused disasters occurred around the same time as the publication of Earth Rise, a photograph taken by NASA astronaut William Anders as he looked back toward the planet. The image was a powerful reminder of how also fragile and unique the Earth really is. Together, these events led to the first Earth Day in 1970, where millions of people across the US came out to demand protection for the environment. As a result, President Richard Nixon – a Republican  – created the EPA. Soon afterwards, his administration passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

By the 1980’s, the hole in the ozone became an international environmental concern because of the adverse effects it could have on human health and the environment. Under the UN’s Montreal Protocol, governments around the globe agreed to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. When released into the atmosphere, these gases, formerly found in aerosol spray cans and refrigerants, reduced the ozone’s capacity to absorb ultraviolet radiation. President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, signed the international agreement in 1988.

In the 1990s, climate change was beginning to be recognized as a serious environmental problem.  To address this issue, the UN organized the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, President George HW Bush – a Republican – signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This international environmental treaty was the first step on the long and often bumpy road toward the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.

The current Republican administration, however, has called climate change a “hoax”. It has announced plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and is rolling back the nation’s Clean Power Plan. So, it is safe to say that the Republican Party has been stepping back from its green legacy in recent years. In fact, we often hear Republican politicians and pundits say things like environmental regulation is detrimental to the economy.

History, however, has shown this argument to be largely false. In the past, some people saw National Parks as government land grabs that would hinder development. Today, they are among the most beloved landscapes in the country. They also generate millions of dollars every year from tourism for the local businesses that surround them. Regulations for clean air and water also had many positive outcomes. Not the least of which are the improved health of millions of Americans and the reclamation of polluted areas now open to new uses and clean sustainable development.

The lessons of history are clear. So, why is there such a polarized divide in this country over environmental issues? Who is benefiting from this rift? These are some important questions to consider not just on Earth Day, but everyday. After all, as the saying goes, everyday is Earth Day.

Earth Rise. Credit: William Anders/NASA

Why Heavy Rain Events are Becoming More Common

Torrential rain events and the flooding they cause are nothing new. Global warming, however, is helping to make them more likely.

Heavy rainfall trends in NYC. Credit: Climate Central

According to the most recent National Climate Assessment, heavy precipitation events have increased in both frequency and intensity across the United States. While there are seasonal variations with different regions, the greatest increases have been observed in the northeast.

Climate scientists attribute this increase in heavy precipitation to our warming world. As greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere, the air is able to hold more water vapor. More specifically, according to the Clausius–Clapeyron relation, for every increase of 1°F, the saturation level of the atmosphere increases by about 4%. That means there is more evaporation from oceans, rivers, and lakes, and therefore more water vapor available to condense and fall as precipitation.

Heavy rain events have a number of consequences, including an increased risk of both flash floods and river floods. This, in turn, is a threat to life and property. Over the long-term, it also affects insurance rates and property values. According to NOAA, individual billion-dollar flooding events (excluding tropical cyclones) in the U.S. have added up to $39 billion in losses since 2010.

As our global temperature continues to rise, experts say we should expect to see more extreme rain events, even in areas where overall precipitation is projected to decrease. In other words, when it rains, it will likely pour.

Downpours have been getting more frequent and intense across the US. Credit: Climate Central and NCA4

Hurricane Names Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate Retired

There will never be another hurricane by the name of Harvey, Irma, Maria, or Nate. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has announced that it is officially retiring these names from its list of Atlantic cyclones.

The WMO is responsible for naming tropical storms and hurricanes around the world.  It maintains a set of six rotating lists for each hurricane-prone region. After a six-year cycle, names are re-used.  Names are only retired when a storm was particularly noteworthy – causing a large number of fatalities or an extraordinary amount of damage.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was brutal, but four storms were particularly destructive. Hurricane Harvey, a category-4 storm, made landfall in Texas and dumped a record-breaking amount of rain in the Houston area, unleashing catastrophic flooding. Irma clobbered the Florida Keys as category-4 hurricane, but its impacts were felt throughout the entire Sunshine state. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a high end category-4 storm and knocked out power to more than 90% of the island for months. Nate hit the US Gulf Coast as a category-1 storm, but most of its deadly impacts were felt in Central America when it was still a tropical storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center, 86 storm names have been retired since the current naming system began in 1953. This year marks the fifth time that four or more names have been retired from a single season. Three of those -1955, 1995, and 2004 – each had four names retired. In 2005, five names were retired – the most ever from one hurricane season.

Starting in 2023, when last year’s list is recycled, the names Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate will be replaced by Harold, Idalia, Margot, and Nigel. Some other notable retired Atlantic Basin storm names include: Andrew, Katrina, Irene, and Sandy.

The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1.

Four names from the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season are retired. Credit: WMO

National Drought Update: Early Spring 2018

The northeastern United States received copious amounts of precipitation from the four nor’easters that blasted the region this month. Much of the rest of the country, however, has been parched.

According to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 31% of the nation is dealing with some form of drought. While this number represents a slight improvement for California, the situation in the southern plains and the southwest has been getting worse. Parts of the Texas Panhandle, western Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas are in exceptional drought, the worst possible category.

Drought conditions have also been building in parts of the southeast. In Florida, according to the state’s Forest Service, dry conditions have fueled more than 1000 wildfires across the peninsula since the beginning of the year.

The US Drought Monitor is a weekly publication produced by a partnership of government agencies, including the National Drought Mitigation Center, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Credit: US Drought Monitor

2017: Third Warmest Year on Record in US

2017 was the third-warmest year ever recorded in the continental United States. Only 2012 and 2016 were warmer.

The average annual temperature of the lower 48 states, according to a report by NOAA’s National Centers of Environmental Information, was 54.6°F. That is 2.6°F above the 20th-century average. 2017 also marked the 21st consecutive year that the annual average temperature for the contiguous US was above its long-term norm. That means the last time the US had a normal to below normal annual temperature was 1996.

From coast to coast, for the third year in a row, every state posted an above-average annual temperature. Five states – Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, and South Carolina – had their warmest year on record. This was despite the unusually cold conditions that dominated the eastern part of the country in December.

The year was also notable for its unusual number of weather and climate disasters that each totaled more than $1 billion in damages. In all, sixteen such events collectively caused $306 billion in direct costs – a new US record. Sadly, they also claimed the lives of at least 362 people across the country. These incidents included drought, wildfire, floods, severe storms, and three major landfalling hurricanes.

The exceptional warmth of 2017 was independent of El Niño. In fact, ENSO neutral conditions prevailed for most of the year and La Niña – the cool counterpart of El Niño – developed in the autumn.

Weather records for the contiguous United States date back to 1895.

Credit: NOAA

Credit: NOAA

La Niña is Back and Likely to Stick Around Through the Winter

La Niña, the cooler counterpart of El Niño, has returned for the second year in a row.

It is a natural event associated with the larger El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern and is marked by cooler-than-average ocean water in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. More specifically, a La Niña event is declared when sea surface temperatures in that region are at least 0.5°C below average and accompanied by a consistent atmospheric response. This includes more clouds and rain over the western Pacific and less over the central part of that basin. Stronger than average upper-level wind is also a key atmospheric indicator.

The relatively cool water associated with La Niña creates an area of high pressure over the Pacific and pushes the jet stream northward. This, in turn, affects weather patterns around the globe.

In the US, a La Niña event typically brings the southern states conditions that are warmer and drier than normal. The northern tier, on the other hand, usually experiences below average temperatures with the northwest and Great Lakes regions receiving above average precipitation.

That said, every La Niña event is different. There are also other atmospheric factors, such as blocking patterns, which can influence the weather.

According to NOAA, there is a 65%-75% chance of weak La Niña conditions continuing through the winter months.

Typical Winter La Niña jet stream pattern over North America. Credit: NOAA/Climate Prediction Center.