‘They start earlier. They last longer.’
In California, the hotter and drier environment of a warming world has spurred bigger and faster-moving infernos that devastate towns, exhaust resources and cause billions of dollars in damage.
Shane Lauderdale is a deputy fire chief for the North County Fire Authority with 30 years of firefighting experience. His son Gabe has been on the job a decade.
Part of a new generation of firefighters, Gabe has been trained on the swift, massive conflagrations that have wracked California in recent years — megafires like the Carr Fire that devoured over 229,000 acres last year in and around Redding, a northern California city nestled amid national forests.
The changes are especially acute in the West, where human-caused climate change is a significant factor in worsening wildfires, scientists at the University of Idaho and Columbia University in New York found. The hotter and drier conditions parch soil and wither plants and brush, increasing fuel for more forest fires.
Climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a clear correlation between very hot and dry years, like 2017 and 2018, and more destructive fires.
One of the most alarming developments: These more explosive and rapidly spreading fires leave communities with little notice or chance to evacuate. Such fire behavior stood out in the deadly 2018 Carr and Camp Fires in California, among others.
The Carr Fire generated an enormous tornado-like vortex that stunned fire researchers.
The “firenado” was “one of two scientifically documented cases of that happening,” said Neil Lareau, a wildfire expert at the University of Nevada at Reno. “Not only is it extreme, we’re talking about events that have only been recorded a handful of times.”
While there is a lot we don’t know about extreme fire activity and its causes, the dryness of trees and brush feed explosive blazes, Lareau said.
As fires have exploded in California, so has the cost of fighting them.
There is also the mounting devastation. In just one year, the Carr Fire killed seven, following by the swiftly spreading Camp Fire, which destroyed an entire town, Paradise, and killed at least 86 people.
The Camp Fire, the worst in California history, cost an estimated $16.5 billion in damage, according to insurance company Munich Re, making it even more destructive than the year’s worst hurricanes.
“Things are drying up”
A rich Rio Grande farming valley faces drier fields, rising heat, and a cross-state ‘water war’
Laura Harper farms the 34 acres of pecan trees in the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico that her late mother, Sally, established as one of the region’s first organic orchards. She has depended on the Rio Grande to irrigate. But decades of drought have made the river an unreliable source of water. For much of the year, says Harper, 45, the river is “cut off” — dammed up at a reservoir called Elephant Butte to manage its flows.
One day in March, the river was almost entirely dry near Harper’s orchard. One day in September, it was running full, swelled by the release of water from the reservoir upstream. The levels ebb and flow each year; what has been steady is the persistence of overall drought.
In a warming climate, Harper worries that this valley may not be able to sustain the thirsty orchards that produce a healthy and lucrative pecan crop. She and her fellow farmers have been pumping more water from underground.
There’s stark evidence of the problem near the town of Truth or Consequences, about 100 miles north of the Mexican border. The century-old Elephant Butte Dam was constructed along the Rio Grande to provide power and irrigation to south-central New Mexico and West Texas, and the resulting reservoir spans 60 square miles.
The gap between the reservoir’s current water level and the high-water mark on surrounding ridges is clearly visible. One March day this spring, the gap measured 88 feet. And although rains and melting snow since then have raised the reservoir’s water level, Elephant Butte is at only 22 percent of its capacity.
The region has suffered through long, dry spells before. Many folks in the valley talk about the intense drought of the 1950s, when New Mexico farmers first began installing pumps to extract groundwater to irrigate their pecan orchards and fields of chiles and alfalfa.
But something is different about the drought this time, many climate scientists suspect.
The mountain snowpack in the southern Rockies and parts of northern New Mexico that feeds the Rio Grande’s headwaters has declined about 25 percent since the late 1950s, said David Gutzler, a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico. As for temperature: New Mexico certainly saw some warm days in the 1930s, at the time of the Dust Bowl. But the state has had an extraordinary warming streak since about 1970, seeing the average annual temperature rise by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in just under 50 years.
So there’s less snow and ice in the mountains, and, scientists theorize, the water that does run off is evaporating faster, because of those higher temperatures, and before the river reaches the southern farms.
Not everyone agrees with this theory, or with Laura Hill’s concerns that climate change may threaten pecan farming in the valley.
Jay Hill, 34, is using technology to test new farming methods in the region. He manages his irrigation systems from his phone and posts gorgeous Instagram photos of his fields.
And he’s highly successful. He grows pecans and over a dozen other crops over thousands of acres he acquired over 19 years, starting in high school. That’s when Jay’s father, who himself farmed as a hobby, pushed him to create a business plan so he could get his first bank loan to grow a crop.
With precious little water coming from the depleted reservoir in recent years, many of the farmers along the Rio Grande have had to rely so heavily on groundwater that Texas in 2013 sued New Mexico over the practice. The lawsuit, which is before the Supreme Court, alleges that the wells near the Rio Grande are siphoning off groundwater that is hydrologically connected to the river — in violation of the 1939 Rio Grande Compact, which governs water resources between the states.
There’s great fear in southern New Mexico that the court’s ruling could result in reduced water allocations. There’s also a tacit acknowledgement that the epic legal battle proves how harsh the drought is. It’s unlikely that the states would be battling over this in times of plenty.
The ultimate solution, Hill insists, is to keep finding smart ways to use less water.
There’s plenty of innovation underway throughout the valley and in pecan production, which has boomed in New Mexico, bringing in a record harvest of 92 million pounds and sales of $220 million in 2017. In addition to experimentation with drip irrigation, farmers use lasers to finely slope the ground in their orchards. That allows water to be distributed evenly, without waste.
Meanwhile, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District is trying to capture as much stormwater as possible during intense rainstorms and channel it into the river system.
Will that be enough, however, as the desert Southwest keeps getting hotter?
“They’re talking about getting by with less water, and ignoring the fact that it’s less and less and less as long as it gets warmer and warmer and warmer,” said Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan who specializes in drought and water. “That’s the political twist that frustrates climate scientists.”
‘They’ve done their damage’
Beetles and drought have imperiled Montana’s forests so much that they no longer clean the air of carbon dioxide. Instead, they are sending millions of tons back into the atmosphere.
Michael Golden has hunted elk on this mountain in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley his entire life. It’s a tradition he shared with his father. But his son is growing up in a starkly different environment.
Montana has warmed 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, considerably more than the United States as a whole. That added heat is contributing to raging forest fires and bark beetle outbreaks, a combination that has devastated the state’s forests.
What Golden and his son have witnessed is part of a broader trend. The forests have experienced so much damage that Montana’s trees, which had provided the crucial function of pulling carbon dioxide from the air, are sending the greenhouse gas back into the atmosphere.
And forests that once provided a counterbalance to climate change are contributing to it, as carbon-rich trees suddenly burn, or die and slowly decompose.
Montana is one of six states in the West where trees have been emitting carbon in the past decade or so, according to an analysis by David Cleaves, a former climate change adviser to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
The other states are Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Four of these states’ forests have flipped in recent years to become carbon emitters — with Montana showing the biggest changes of all, according to the analysis, which measured the carbon content of only trees, not soil. In the 1990s, Montana’s forests were pulling about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the air each year. But by the 2010s, they had reversed course and were putting a few million tons per year back again. The net result is that Montana is sending an extra 20 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
“In the last 10, 15 years, there’s been quite a bit more mortality than in earlier times,” said Cleaves, who is now a consultant with the conservation group American Forests. “So much so that … it crept up to become a small but noticeable source of emissions.”
One reason is that an epidemic of bark beetles has been decimating forests. Although beetle outbreaks have happened before, scientists think rising temperatures have made them worse. In western Montana, there have been fewer of the frigid days — around minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit — that would kill off insect larvae.
“The warming climate has allowed beetles to hang on, reproduce faster — multiple broods in a year — and access trees at higher elevations that used to be resistant because of the cold,” says Carl Seielstad, a fire expert at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Between 2000 and 2015, 14 million acres were damaged by beetles and other pests or diseases, more than half of the state’s total forested area.
Rising temperatures also are shrinking the mountain snowpack, weakening the forests. The snowpack, which has been declining since the 1930s, has been melting more quickly in the past four decades. Trees stressed by drought struggle to resist beetle attacks, and the drier ground makes forests more susceptible to fires. In 2017, a massive 1.367 million acres burned in the state.
Since 1997, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have been losing about 2 percent of their trees every year, says Christopher Williams, a forest and climate change researcher at Clark University in Massachusetts. That’s the equivalent of about 800,000 forest acres annually.
Michael Golden says he doesn’t know enough to be sure whether the changes he’s noticed, in the forests he knows well, are driven by human-caused warming or natural cycles.
But he’s sure of one thing: He thinks the U.S. Forest Service deserves the most blame. He says that it could remove more dead trees, and that doing so would help matters a great deal.
The Goldens climbed in the cold Montana air for eight hours that day, crossing fields of felled trees left behind in the wake of a 2000 wildfire, without seeing any elk.
“The hunter’s perception is definitely correct that fires really do shift elks around the landscape,” added Mark Hebblewhite, an elk specialist at the University of Montana in Missoula. It could be, he said, that with so many downed trees, elk can see hunters from much farther away and avoid them.
But Hebblewhite added that the elk are still out there, simply adapting to changing forests as they always have.
The elk adapt, but it’s not clear that the forests will.
Normally, forests that died off would grow back and return to drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, providing what scientists call a “sink.”
But the fields of what Golden called “pick-up sticks” suggest a more worrying idea. Maybe, in a new climate regime, forests don’t grow back in the same way. Instead, they shift into a different state.
“When they get hammered so intensely, and we don’t get regeneration, they’re no longer like forest sites anymore, they’re grassland sites,” Cleaves said. “That long-term sink capacity is permanently gone.”
‘The river didn’t rise like that’
In New Bern, N.C., Hurricane Florence brought historic flooding — and a warming climate probably made it worse.
For six generations, Lois Ann Cantlow’s family has lived in New Bern, a town in eastern North Carolina located at the mouth of the Neuse River. During Hurricane Florence, the storm surge reached 10 feet in New Bern. Cantlow says her house got five feet of floodwaters.
That closely matches the findings from storm surge modeling by researcher Rick Luettich at the University of North Carolina.
The National Guard rescued Cantlow and her family the next morning. She was relieved to be safe, but shocked when she returned to her home, which was devastated by water damage.
While each hurricane springs from a complex string of atmospheric events, scientists say all are occurring in an environment that’s warmer and wetter. Florence traveled across offshore waters that were several degrees warmer than usual (warm seas are the central energy source for hurricanes).
Preliminary research has shown that Florence was probably somewhat larger and dumped more rain than it would have if the same storm had arrived in a world without humans’ greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
When it comes to how Lois Cantlow was affected, climate change was more directly in play. Her home is some six to seven feet above the local high-tide line — but in the massive storm surge that swept up the Neuse River, her home was not spared.
Rising seas, caused by the melting of the planet’s ice and the swelling of the ocean as it warms, make any coastal flooding event worse, even on sunny days. They also worsen the impact of hurricanes when they cross shorelines.
In Cantlow’s case, climate change wasn’t the biggest driver behind the water that ultimately wound up in her home — but it did worsen the flooding, experts say.
Steven McAlpine is a researcher with the First Street Foundation, which pinpoints the impact of rising seas on specific homes and neighborhoods. He calculates that rising seas made flooding at Cantlow’s address “at least two-thirds of a foot deeper.” In her Sunnyside neighborhood, the rising seas caused 15 percent more homes “to experience significant flooding.”
Another sea level expert, Benjamin Strauss with Climate Central, said seas off the East Coast have risen by nine inches since 1900.
“We can say, with a high probability, that at least five or six of those inches are human-caused climate change,” Strauss said. At Cantlow’s house, that would translate to perhaps 10 percent of the water.
That may not sound like much. But over time, as seas continue to rise (and rise at a faster rate), more and more water driven inland by storms will be attributable to climate change.
What’s more, many parts of New Bern experienced less flooding than Cantlow’s house did. For some of these areas, climate change could have made the difference between wet and dry. In all of them, it would have accounted for a larger percentage of the overall flooding.
Flooding can be emotionally overwhelming and financially disastrous for families in hurricane-prone areas. Cantlow had home insurance but no flood insurance. She has taken out a loan to rebuild.
In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated a staggering price tag from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria: $265 billion dollars.
In sheer dollar costs, Hurricane Michael — which intensified quickly before it made landfall, taking residents by surprise — and Florence weren’t as damaging as the 2017 storms. But they still had a combined toll of $30 billion, according to reinsurer Munich Re, and join a growing list of devastating storms.
‘There’s no doubt things are changing’
The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, dramatically disrupting fishery patterns and creating new winners — and losers.
Since 1963, Greg Mataronas’s family has been making a living catching lobster off of Little Compton, R.I. But as water temperatures have risen rapidly along the coast, there are fewer lobster to be found, prompting a shift to other species, like whelk.
The state’s lobster haul peaked at over 8 million pounds in 1999. It hasn’t exceeded 3 million since 2005. And in 2017, it barely reached 2 million. As a result, a way of life is rapidly changing and, for some, ending.
To hold on, Rhode Island fishermen have agreed to a 50 percent cut in how many lobster traps they can set. Like the lobsters, they are adapting to a changing sea, buying out the licenses of competitors or diversifying what they catch.
Mataronas now fishes for whelk and sea bass and other fish, as well as lobster. To provide for his family, he couldn’t just fish like his father had.
The lobster business couldn’t be more different a few hundred miles north, off the rocky coast of Maine, where the water is just the right temperature for these celebrated crustaceans.
The haul has exploded. Maine’s fisheries have gone from landing about 20 million pounds of lobster each year in the 1980s to nearly 120 million pounds this decade.
Lobster ranks among the most valuable fisheries in the United States, generating over half a billion dollars in revenue annually, most of it in Maine. So the record harvests have been a bonanza for the state’s economy.
The big question is: What’s causing these sudden changes? A number of scientists agree that the Gulf of Maine’s rapid warming over the past several years has helped shift the lobster population northward.
Ocean water temperatures are rising around the world; 2018 was likely the oceans’ warmest year on record. But that alone may not explain the dramatic shift in the Gulf of Maine. Some scientists have found that a slowdown of the so-called overturning circulation in the Atlantic is preventing some warm water from reaching higher latitudes and is instead causing the Gulf Stream to dump it at the New England coast.
“The Gulf of Maine, temperature-wise, is changing very rapidly compared to the rest of the world,” said Dave Carlon, a marine scientist at Bowdoin College. “It’s a little microcosm for what’s going to happen in other parts of the world as the temperature changes.”
Not everyone in the Maine lobster industry agrees that they have climate change to thank for their good fortune — the same climate change that has helped weaken the fishery farther south.
Jason Joyce is a lobsterman living on Swans Island, Maine, whose family has been in the fishing industry since 1806. He points to many other factors that could be driving the present boom.
Skeptics like Joyce say lobsters have fewer predators because populations of groundfish like cod, which eat young lobsters, have crashed. They also say Maine fishermen have a longstanding set of self-enforced conservation practices that set them apart from the southern fisheries.
Faith or not, the implications of ongoing climate change for Maine’s lobster industry are unsettling.
Last year, a team of scientists warned that if uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions continue, the Gulf of Maine will keep warming, and the Maine lobster fishery will decline substantially from its current peak.
The finding was so controversial that the state’s Department of Marine Resources questioned the study and said it wouldn’t take it into account in future planning. The dispute spilled into the pages of the local Portland Press Herald, with state regulators and lobster industry officials disputing the science.
If the research is correct, it would mean Maine’s lobster future is closely tied to the world’s decisions on climate change.
“If the Paris [climate change] goals are met, Maine holds on to a lobster fishery,” said Andrew Pershing, one of the lead researchers behind the work and a scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
In Portland, Maine, business is booming at Ready Seafood, where Curt Brown works as a marine biologist. Brown grew up fishing these waters, and he and his wife, Michelle, are teaching their 3-year-old son, Finn, the ropes.
The question is: What does the future hold for the next generation in Maine?
There’s hope in the sense that the Maine lobster industry knows how to protect its catch and conserve the environment, which has made a difference.
But the ability of lobster populations to move — quickly — has clearly been established.
Nobody knows how much warming the future holds — or when the world will come up with a solution that matches the scale, and speed, of climate change.
Reporting and filming
Design and development
Firenado footage by Cal Fire/California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Home photos by Sharon Bryant
About the story
Forest carbon data sourced from the USFS Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. Forest disturbance data provided by the Biogeosciences Research Group at Clark University. American lobster density data sourced from the Pinsky Lab, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University. Maine lobster harvest data sourced from the State of Maine Department of Marine Resources. Hurricane Florence modeled storm surge data provided by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence. Satellite imagery sourced from Mapbox. Acres burned and emergency fund fire suppression expenditures for California sourced from CalFire. California temperature and precipitation data sourced from NOAA.
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