Thursday, July 05, 2018

Fireworks and Climate Change

The geography of climate change is complicated. With the entire state located far from the oceans and thousands of feet above sea-level, Colorado is safe from the rising water that is central to so many discussions of climate change and climate justice.

This does not make Colorado -- or the rest of the western highlands of North America -- safe from climate change. As journalist Grace Hood recently reported on NPR, climate-related increases in fire hazard are causing many communities to make the difficult decision of canceling -- or greatly modifying -- traditional fireworks. In places where a carelessly discarded cigarette can ignite a blaze that burns thousands of square miles, fireworks are being reconsidered.


Note: Grace Hood speaks with an actual geography professor as part of this story! Dr. Balch is an expert in -- among other things -- landscape ecology. Although I have not have the expertise in this area that she does, I was fortunate to take one graduate course in landscape ecology. From that course in the biology department, I first learned of the counterintuitive relationship between our successes in fire suppression (think Smokey the Bear) and the increasing volatility of forest fires and wildfires.

It was only after a half-century or so of success that the danger became clear. In an extensive area that has not burned in 50 or more years, the ordinary patchwork of high- and low-fuel areas is replaced with a uniformly abundant fuel load. This means that forests or srublands that had evolved with small fires every couple decades would now face fires that were rare, but impossible to stop once started. Moreover, the relatively benign ground fires would increasingly be replaced by much hotter canopy fires.

Almost every fire season, I have added a post about the latest evidence of the increasingly complicated and dangerous outcomes of these landscape changes. In my 2015 Frontier on Fire, I discuss some of the basic ideas of fire ecology, in the context of the severe season experienced in Alaska that year. The article includes a link to a thorough exploration by environmental journalist Steve Curwood. In Fires of the Future are Here (2017), I point to a number of other excellent resources on fire ecology and possible management responses.



In Wildfire Anniversary (2010), I write about a very local example of the fire danger resulting directly from successful fire suppression. The 1964 Miles Standish fire was an early example that burned strongly, only 20 miles southeast of our Bridgewater campus. Some modern management practices have been undertaken since then, but it is not yet clear whether that forest (shown above) has the requisite landscape diversity to prevent a similar fire.

In Hot or Not (2012), I addressed the reluctance of political candidates -- regardless of ideology -- to make connections between wild fire can climate change.

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