The recent rash of wildfires in western states like Colorado and Texas serve as a reminder of the deadly consequences of climate change. The associated rises in surface air temperature provide a concern of themselves. However, the effects are more far-reaching and dangerous.
Climate Extremes and Wildfires
Some ecosystems like prairies, evolved with fire, set naturally by lightning or intentionally by Native Americans. Fire improves the health of the land by removing duff at the surface. With fire suppression comes the risk of hotter fires that may be more difficult to control, as evidenced by the Colorado situation.
Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, who heads the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), has an explanation for these occurrences. Global warming has altered the climate and consequently, the environment, through drier and warmer weather. These factors, fire suppression and a dry fuel base, are a deadly combination for wildfires.
On top of the environmental conditions are other complications that may also stem from global warming. Infestations of bark beetles have added to the fuel base. Trenberth postulated that climate change may have encouraged bark beetles to move into the area due to warmer winter temperatures.
Bark beetles can decimate forests. This action, in turn, provides more fuel as well as of a type that burns hotter and longer. This makes controlling wildfires more difficult and more dangerous for firefighters. Fires of this magnitude can also be especially devastating because they can destroy entire trees. Recovery of the land is prolonged, carrying the added burden of loss of habitat for wildlife.
The Cost of Inaction
The trends of the last several years show a definite warming pattern. August 2011 was the warmest and driest on record for Texas, another state dealing with the destruction of wildfires. The fires are a consequence of drought-like conditions that have been one of the hallmarks of global warming.
Wildfires carry enormous environmental and economic costs. The consequences of inaction on climate change are becoming increasingly clear as the physical evidence mounts. The emotional costs and loss of human lives are certainly some of the most devastating results of failure to face this environmental issue fully.