Guest Post: How the 2018 California Wildfires are a Product of Climate Change

Although a trifecta of factors (high winds, extended periods of drought, and above-average temperatures) is being blamed for starting the fires and allowing them to expand at unprecedented and unstoppable rates, the rise in average temperatures is the root cause for the blazes

california wildfires
A firefighter monitors a back fire while battling the Medocino Complex Fire on August 7, 2018 near Lodoga, California. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

— As reports of deadly wildfires tearing through California grow, it’s apparent that the aftermath of the fires is catastrophic. And it’s getting worse. The fires spreading through the state are the largest in California’s history, and they are among the most destructive. Collectively, the blazes in Mendocino, Orange County, and Redding have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres. Many homes have been destroyed, and the death toll is climbing. As the nation struggles to grasp the sheer volume of the fires and their effects, many questions remain unanswered. One, which is behind the increasing number of unusually severe natural disasters of all kinds, is what role climate change plays in the deadly 2018 fires?

A Path of Destruction

Over a dozen fires have erupted across California. Three blazes are especially large. The largest fire is the Mendocino Complex Fire, which has burned over 283,000 acres so far and continues to grow. At present, the fire is only 30% contained. Its volume surpasses the 2017 Thomas Fire, which burned a total of 281,000 acres. The second-largest blaze is the Ferguson Fire, which has scorched almost 95,000 acres and is less than 40% contained. In one day alone, its size increased by over 8,000 acres. Lives have been lost in the Ferguson Fire, and it’s forced many parts of Yosemite National Park to close. This has interrupted the tourist season and had major economic repercussions. Near Redding, the Carr Fire has destroyed over 173,000 acres and gutted over 1,000 homes.


What Caused The Fires?

As trends show, the Western states are dealing with larger, more destructive, and more dangerous fires each year. A trifecta of factors (high winds, extended periods of drought, and above-average temperatures) is being blamed for starting the fires and allowing them to expand at unprecedented and unstoppable rates. Although all three factors have fueled California’s epic fires, the rise in average temperatures is the root cause for the blazes. Scientist Michael Wehner at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has “no doubt” that the rise in average temperatures has created more severe and long-lasting droughts, as well as longer and more extreme heat waves. Together, these conditions have set the foundation for fires to start, as they produce both the heat and dry ground that is necessary for fires to begin. As climate change continues to worsen, the volume of large wildfires in the Western states and Alaska will increase, as evidenced by a report issued by the National Climate Assessment.

In addition to the ground, conditions in the atmosphere have also been more conducive for the start of California’s massive wildfires. One atmospheric change that’s enabled fires to start is a shift and weakening in the jet stream. The jet stream is a predominant wind pattern over the Northern Hemisphere. It affects weather patterns like temperature, humidity, and precipitation. For much of the 2018 summer season, the jet stream has been weaker than normal, which means that it is not producing winds that normally cool the earth’s surface. It’s also failing to move weather systems along. In turn, this has caused unusually high temperatures across the United States. The weaker jet stream has also caused abnormally high temperatures in Europe. Reports have even emerged of temperatures exceeding 90º F in the Arctic Circle, which is unprecedented! Weather patterns have been affected by the changing jet stream, too. Hotter and drier conditions have prevailed over the West Coast, while the East Coast has seen higher humidity levels than normal. Combined with above-average temperatures, this has caused a larger number of storms and even more rainfall than usual.

The Science Behind Climate Change

Some people are skeptical about the role of climate change, and they believe that the changing weather patterns are due to natural fluctuations in atmospheric conditions. But there is actually a scientific explanation behind climate change that explains above-average temperatures. Climate change is attributed to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are a collection of gases including methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and the fluorinated gases. These gases are produced naturally, but they are produced in much larger quantities by human activities. The primary human activities that increase greenhouse gas volumes are using fossil fuels, intensive and large-scale agriculture, (particularly dairy farming), widespread use of synthetic pesticide and fertilizers, and industrial operations. The more these activities are performed, the more greenhouse gases they produce, which in turn causes a more pronounced greenhouse gas effect. The greenhouse gas effect is a collection of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unlike natural molecules, the greenhouse gases don’t biodegrade when they rise into the atmosphere. Instead, they linger for an extended period of time and accumulate. This in turn changes the function of the atmosphere. The primary problem with greenhouse gases is that they trap heat, which then warms temperatures on the earth’s surface. Rising temperatures are one of the primary factors in California’s 2018 blazes.

Tackling California’s unprecedented wildfires is no small chore. In the short term, firefighters are tapping into the state’s already scarce water resources to combat the blazes. Assistance is arriving from the US military and international firefighting crews, too. But in addition to an on-the-ground means of fighting the fires, it’s apparent that serious efforts must be made to reduce climate change, too.

by Josy O’Donnel | Conservation Institute

josy o'donnelHi! I am Josy O’Donnel, and I am the creator of Conservation Institute. While completing my bachelors degree, I developed an interest in the study of Earth’s future and the conservation of Earth’s natural resources. Years after, I am still immersed in these subjects. I want to share my passion with an online community of people who are devoted spreading awareness and attention to the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth.