Category Archives: Climate Change

Wildfire Revisited

Ventura Fire

Things are hot in Southern California.  Earlier, it was hot in Santa Rosa and the Napa Valley.  When there is a high pressure system over the Great Basin and a low develops off the California Coast, the pressure gradient gives rise to hot downslope winds blowing from east to west.  The Santa Ana.  Wildfires proliferate in the mountainous chaparral country.  As the population continues to grow, the urban areas extend into the brush country.

That Great Basin high is also a fire maker for Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Here in Colorado, low pressure systems move down the Plains and the pressure gradient creates winds similar to California’s Santa Ana.  As with most natural phenomena, it is not if, but when.

It’s gonna burn, folks.

The brush country is that way because frequent wildfires prevent any significant tree growth.  When the brush burns, it tends to return in just a few years.  With trees, not so much.

Rawah Burn. Over 100 Years, Trees Have Not Returned

I remember backpacking through a 100 year old burn in the Rawah Wilderness here in Colorado.  The trees had not returned, and the topsoil was eroded away on the hilltops.  Fires in Colorado’s chaparral country such as west of Glenwood Springs burn and in five or ten years the brush is back, ready to burn again.

I have seen this happen in my lifetime.  The  ridges south of the Colorado River and west of Glenwood have burned at least twice.  Lightning causes some of the fires, but once a fire spread from the town dump.  The tragic 1994 fire that killed fourteen firefighters was north of the river and just west of Glenwood.  The fuel load was greater because the area had not burned for some time.

 

 

 

 

 

Storm King

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you go back to the Storm King fire area, you will see the brush returning.  It’s not ready to burn yet, but given some time and a few wet years, it will be ready to go again.  The town of Glenwood has built up right to the brush on both sides of the river.

Brush Returning

Back to California, the towns have grown up to the brush and those wanting a view are living in the brushy areas.  The canyons are more heavily wooded and full of houses.  All the coastal mountains from San Diego north are in the chaparral zone.  All the urbanization is also in those areas.  Quick commute? Live just below the hills in a canyon.  Nice view, build your house on the ridge.

Those examples of the urban-woodland interface are not unique to Western Colorado and California.  The Colorado Front Range is another example.  Fires have burned from west of Fort Collins to south of Colorado Springs.

Waldo Canyon Fire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Waldo Canyon fire burned into town on Colorado Springs’ west side and into Manitou Springs.  The Black Forest Fire was in a different climate zone with Ponderosa Pine , but with lots of brush.  That area is wetter, but is also subject to drought and wildfire, just less often.

Arizona and Utah have similar country, and fire killed 19 firefighters in mixed brush and timber just outside Prescott.  I am waiting for a big fire just west of Denver.  It’s only going to get worse.  People are moving into the brush country in increasing numbers,  if you move to Colorado or California from Chicago, you want the mountain experience.  The jobs are in the cities, and the closest mountain areas are brush country.  Four Mile Canyon outside Boulder and Ojai, California are examples of what fire does to development in the chaparral.

Young people looking for an exciting career should look into wildland firefighting.  It is a growth industry.  Oh, I haven’t even mentioned climate change.  It will increase job opportunities.

Back to Fracking

I wrote about fracking before, but it seems to be the time to revisit the controversy.  The oil and gas business is paying for a media blitz saying fracking is a good thing: lower energy prices.

The opposition seems to believe fracking has concentrated all the evil in the world into a bunch of holes in the ground.  What is the reality here?  Both sides have strong arguments, but they are operating from separate assumptions.

Pro fracking advocates use the arguments that lower energy prices and tax revenue benefit us all.  Anti fracking advocates point to many accidents at drilling sites and groundwater contamination, along with drilling steadily encroaching on urban ares as a dangerous activity.

What about the benefits of fracking?  It’s true fracking has lowered energy costs and the conversion of coal fired power plants to has has lowered air pollution.  True on both counts.  But, fossil fuel is still being burned and greenhouse gasses are still going into the atmosphere.  It’s very possible fracking and increased low cost gas production is impeding the process of converting to alternative energy sources.

What about fracking itself?  It is not new technology.  My Fruita paper route doubled during the 1950’s energy boom in Western Colorado and Eastern Utah.  Fracking was part of the story then.  The real change is to horizontal drilling combined with fracking.

A deep vertical hole is drilled and then the bore hole is turned ninety degrees over the distance of a quarter mile.  The long horizontal bore is is perforated, explosive charges are detonated, fracturing rock usually fairly impervious to oil and gas flow.  The openings are then injected with water and sand, cracking more rock with the cracks held open by the sand.  Oil and gas can then flow into the bore hole and to the surface, then to your furnace and gas tank.

The fracking process uses a lot of water, from one to five million gallons.  About half or less of the water returns to the surface and is most often injected into another well (cheaper than treatment).  The water use can have a significant impact in arid regions.  Return water can be treated, but is expensive.

Probably the biggest objection to fracking is groundwater contamination.  Near Parachute CO, it was possible to light tap water on fire, there was so much gas in the water.  Most often the contamination comes from leaks in the vertical bore hole.  Proper casing and concrete injection readily prevents leaks, but as the work is done deep underground, it is easy to cheat, causing leaks.

My take on the issue?  Increased production from fracking lowers oil and gas prices and decreases our reliance on imported oil.  Coal fired power plants are being converted to gas, resulting in less greenhouse gas pollution from them.  Done properly, the technology is safe, but cheating seems to be the norm in the oil and gas business.  If we want to use fossil fuel, well regulated fracking is the way to go.  i think some of the opposition is because of the word fracking.  It seems to have an obscene connotation.

The big downside stems from the fact reduced fossil fuel costs are delaying the transition to alternative energy sources.  One estimate points out that cheap natural gas makes gas fired power plant power cheaper than wind or solar power.  The transition to alternative power may be slowed by twenty years or more.  In the short run, cheap gas is good.  In the long run, cheap gas may do more harm than good.  The planet can’t sequester enough carbon and the planet gets warmer.  Of course in the long run, we’re all dead.

The debate becomes political, and the oil business has the dollars to influence the decision.  Result, more gas gets burned and the long run comes earlier.  We will probably render our species extinct.

Wildfire

Some of the golden hills of California just turned black.  This time it is north around Santa Rosa and the wine country.  Usually it is the San Gabriel mountains or other Southern California areas.  The conditions leading to destructive wildfire are the same.  There are essentially two seasons; when it rains and when there is no rain.

This year there was a lot of rain in what passes for winter in all of California.  Everything greens up and grows.  It means good feed for cattle, and lots of fuel in the fall when it dries out.  You are probably familiar with the Santa Ana winds in Southern California.  The desert Great Basin east of the mountains cools off, creating an area of high pressure.  The pressure creates west-flowing winds, blowing to the coast.  As the winds hit the mountains, they rise, cool, then flow down the west side of the mountains, warming as they flow west.  Thus the Santa Ana winds, hot dry wind flowing west and drying all that foliage that grew during the rainy season.

In Northern California, the winds are called Diablo winds, after the local Diablo mountains.  The high pressure west of the coastal region originates from high pressure following storms blowing into the basin from the stormy northwest.  The high pressure again creates west flowing wind howling down the west side of the mountains.  The fires are set or lightning started, and burn across the valleys.  That means the golden hills, vineyards, and Santa Rosa suburbs.

The fire triangle: fuel, heat, and oxygen.  The fuel grew, much heat comes with the wind, which also supplies plenty of oxygen.  Add an ignition point, and it burns.  The wind and fire blows down canyons, and people like to live in the canyons.  When all the space in the canyons is full, people move into the hills.  It is called the urban-wildland interface.  The entire American West is growing in population, and the new people moving in want to experience some open space.  The open space is open because it periodically burns, thus no forest, just chaparral and grassland.  And houses.  Destruction.

Is climate change partly responsible?  You decide.  California has always had destructive fire blowing in from the west, but is climate change exacerbating the natural phenomena?

Here in Colorado, we also have destructive wildland fires fanned by downslope winds.  Here the winds are from the west, hit the mountains, rise, cool, and roar down the eastern side of the mountains, fanning fires.  People are moving into the areas where the fires have always burned, and their houses burn.  The Plains east of Denver see huge grassland fires, especially after a wet spring.

Storm King Fire, Glenwood Springs CO

Western Colorado also has wind accelerated fires.  Westerly winds encounter the west side of the Rockies, rise, cool, and descend into the area around Glenwood Springs.  The country is the Colorado equivalent of California Chaparral.  The brush burns got, killing firefighters and threatening towns.  It is only a matter of time before things get hot in Glenwood, Newcastle, and Carbondale.

The West is a wonderful place, with open space, mountains, deserts, and a harsh climate.  People moving there beware, the conditions are more violent than in the well-watered East.  Oh, and don’t forger the landslides and avalanches where it is steep, along with fire.  There is lots of steep country.   There is steep country just west of all the people living along the Front Range.  The fires just might burn into town, just like Santa Rosa.

Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs has seen fire, along with Boulder.  Some day a fire may want to go downtown in a Front Range city. It is also likely a mountain town like Evergreen or Estes Park will burn.  The Mountain Pine Beetle has left a lot of standing dead trees ready to burn.

Why do I seem to be writing about fire, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other means of destruction? Maybe because I am confronting my own mortality.  I just turned 75.  I know it is surprising because I look so young.

There’s Hurricanes in Florida and Texas Had Rain

Colorado Desert

I am a child of the desert, and the guy sitting next to me in the coffee shop is from Saudi Arabia.  Those of us from dry country usually don’t understand why people would choose to live in wet, low country with hurricanes.  Yes, there is the ocean, but we can always go to Lake Powell or Lake McCounaughy.  We do have a few tornados and hailstorms, and one of the canyons floods every 15 years or so.

On the gulf or Florida coast they get a hurricane at roughly the same intervals, but the damage is widespread and many more people are affected.  For some reason, most of the people in the world live close to a seacoast.  Yes, trade is easier and things tend to grow there (not like our Great American Desert).

Too low, too many people, too wet.  And yes, the oceans are headed inland.  It will be even wetter.   It is somewhat harder to make a living here in mid-continent and the seasons can be more harsh, but grand catastrophes are rarer.  I must confess a warm ocean is good for visits, but I did not like the mid-Atlantic, but maybe it was because I was on a troopship.

Another problem with seacoasts is many of them have a tendency to shake.  The tectonic plates collide on the coasts, thus mountains and earthquakes.  I prefer the ground under me to hold still.  When we visited Carol’s daughter in Menlo Park CA, I was a bit nervous being halfway between the San Andreas and Hayward faults in a flood plain.  The real irony is that the U.S. Geological Survey regional office is there.

Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Here in Denver, there were big earthquakes once when the Rockies were rising, but it has been a while.  We had a flurry of small ones when they were pumping hazardous waste down a drill hole at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.  When they stopped pumping, the earthquakes stopped.  That lesson was ignored in the Oklahoma oil fields where they pump fracking water back down drill holes instead of treating it.  Most of the state is shaking.

“Do it cheaply, don’t bother with doing what is right.”  It seems to be standard procedure in the extractive industries such as oil and gas and mining.  The solution is regulation, but the oil business owns the government in Oklahoma and Texas.  They are close to owning the U. S. Government.

I seem to have drifted into a rant.  Weren’t we discussing living on the coast?  The coasts stand to reason from a short term economic standpoint.  The rivers are there, shipping is cheap, it is fairly flat, and the climate tends to be moderated by the ocean.  Except when it is not.  Hurricanes, nor’easters, increasingly wetter monsoons, and sea level rise is scary.

Tidal Flood in Florida

How would you like having sea water pouring out of the storm drains in your street at high tide?  What about having your crops inundated by incessant rain?  Do you want the roof ripped off your house and be without power for many days?  Then there are tsunamis.  Take a look at the Japan tsunami on YouTube.  If none of this stuff bothers you, live on the coast.

They Really Don’t Know

The weather.  It is always with us, and it often affects what we do any given day. Radio, television, the paper,  The Weather Channel, and AccuWeather all have lots to say about what is going to happen.  Why in the hell can’t they do better?  Dammit, we need to know.  The meteorologists have a tremendous amount of information gathered from all over the globe.  The planet spins at a constant rate in its orbit around the sun.  So do better, already.

As long as our weather here along the Colorado Front Range is coming from the west I can look at the national radar map and do about as well as all those people with advanced degrees who understand what adabiatic means.  If the weather is coming up from the gulf, they do better than me, but that’s about it.  By the way, it is probably going to rain in Seattle.

The weather tomorrow is probably going to be like today.  Except when it isn’t.  There is enough rain for stuff to grow in the Midwest.  Not so much in Hanksville, Utah.  Oops, I have digressed from weather to climate.  Lots of people do that.  They point to the latest big storm or dry spell to deny climate change.  Apples and oranges, folks.  They both grow on trees, but that’s as far as it goes.  We may be growing oranges in Paonia if this current trend continues.

Climate scientists can document the effects of big climate events like meteors hitting off Yucatán  or when big volcanoes send ash all around the planet, but have more trouble explaining long term trends.  One thing they can say for sure, the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the climate.  There is a long term carbon cycle of sequestering and release of the stuff that is well documented.  Plants trap carbon.  The ocean traps carbon.  It gets stored, then something happens so more is released than stored.  These days, much arctic permafrost is thawing and releasing sequestered carbon.

That excess release is happening these days.  Methane is part of the cycle as well.  In the U.S., the highest atmospheric levels of methane are in the Four Corners region, home to thousands of oil and gas wells.  With lax or no regulation, many of those wells leak.  In addition,  in huge quantities are stored on the sea floor. If the global sea temperatures are raised by two degrees Celsius,  methane in those hydrates could be released into the atmosphere, accelerating the warming trend.

So, what is the tipping point where the warming trend is irreversible?  Nobody knows for sure.  We do know, however, that greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is increasing and left unchecked, reaching the tipping point is inevitable. We just don’t know when.  Our earth has been through this warming – cooling trend many times.  The planet will seek equilibrium at some point.  This takes thousands to millions of years.  Humans don’t work in that time scale.

Don’t panic.  As John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

Climate Change

Florida Flooding

Florida Flooding

Here it is, the last day of November, and we still have some tomatoes from our garden.  We had the hard freeze a couple of weeks ago, but we brought quite a few in before it froze.  This fall has been the fall of pasta sauce and tomato soup.  Traditionally the first freeze is in September or early October.  Not this year.  Now, just because we have one warm fall doesn’t necessarily mean global warming, it is a matter of relatively long term trends.  That is happening, folks.   

Worldwide, it is about one degree Celsius and climbing.  The culprit is carbon.  We need carbon, our bodies are mostly water, but carbon hangs everything together.  Florida, for example, is mostly calcium carbonate, limestone.  The limestone formed even the peninsula was underwater with a climate encouraging the growth of untold billions of tiny organisms with calcium carbonate shells.  They die, and if whales don’t eat them, their shells sink to the sea floor.  Well, even if they do get eaten, the whale turds are calcareous.   

Porous Limestone

Porous Limestone

Millions of years and sea level change, and Florida emerges.  The cycle doesn’t end there.  It rains on Florida, and the slightly acidic rain starts dissolving the limestone, sending the carbonates back to the sea.  Enough of the limestone has dissolved to make the peninsula a honeycomb.  Sinkholes, underground rivers, high tides bringing ocean water inland and flooding streets in  Broward county.  The southern part of the state is headed back underwater.   The really big deal is that sea level is rising.   

I have given an example of the carbonate cycle, which is going on worldwide.  The other cycle going on is the water cycle.  Our planet is delicately balanced in temperature around the freezing point of water.  The water evaporates, and if it is cool enough, some of it falls as snow and accumulates, mostly in the polar regions.  At times the ice forming from all that snow has made it as far as Central Park in New York,  that is a lot of water tied up on land.  Sea level drops, and Florida emerges.  

Currently, the cycle is going the opposite direction.  The ice is melting, and the process seems to be accelerating.  Why?  Carbon.  Here in Denver, I see huge coal trains hauling coal south to be burned to run air conditioners in Texas.  The coal, carbon, is ripped from the ground where it has lain for millions of years, mostly dead plant life converted into coal.  It is burned, sending carbon into the atmosphere.  I drove here to the coffee shop burning gasoline, which comes from oil made deep underground from what once were living organisms.  The carbon goes into the air, the climate changes due to human activity.  We are in a new epoch, the Anthropocene.

Elemental carbon is fairly rare.  Diamonds, graphite.  Carbon likes to combine with other stuff to make, well, us and other living things.  That carbon gets sequestered in the earth, reducing the amount of carbon available to make new stuff.  There is a cyclical balance, dependent on worldwide temperature and, lately, us.  We burn carbon based fuels and the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.   

The sun shines, warming everything up.  A lot of that heat gets radiated back into space, maintaining a balance favorable to life.  When that radiant heat meets a CO2 molecule, it warms the molecule.  More carbon, more heat in the atmosphere.  That’s greenhouse gas doing its thing.  The global climate warms up, making some regions wetter, some more dry.  We have gotten used to having a relatively stable climate, and we adapt to it in many ways.   

When the rain and snow fall changes, our adaptations stop working so well.  This is especially important in coastal regions, because all that polar ice starts melting and sea level rises.  Most of the population lives near the coast.  With the coasts moving inland, the people and all their stuff will have to move as well.  Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan gets flooded in big storms.  The subway tunnels flood, and people have trouble getting around.  The time is coming when they will be living in central New Jersey.  The horror. 

There are lots of people denying all this, saying it is just the normal weather cycle.  That is true, but it is a new normal, and is changing.   What to do? Stop putting so much carbon into the air and start putting it back into the earth.   That means big change in the way we do things, and those getting rich on the status quo don’t want their businesses upset.   Oil and coal, mostly, but they drive all of our economy.  So, they say it isn’t so, and let’s burn, burn, burn.   

What goes around comes around.  It is just a matter of time.