April 15th, 2013 by Don Lieber
Two separate reports issued in early April by different US agencies predicted significant increases in major wildfires and in major rain storms (“precipitation events”) within the next few decades due to the atmospheric effects of expected greenhouse gas emissions.
A study by the US Department of Agriculture said that wildfires in the US will be at least twice as destructive by 2050 as they are today. The report, researched and written by scientists with the US Forest Service, estimates that by mid-century about 20 million acres of forest per year will be burned by wildfires in the US annually. By comparison, in 2012 some 6 million acres of forest were burned by wildfires in the US.
The US Midwest and Southwest — already experiencing catastrophic damage from wildfires — will see the most damage. States such as Colorado and Arizona can expect a five-fold increase in acres burned according to the report.
The report also summarizes some of the long-term environmental and economic effects of increased wildfires including the degradation of city watersheds and insect infestations.
Furthermore, wildfires are both a symptom and a cause of climate change. According to the DOA report, “US forests offset 13 percent of the country’s carbon emissions, and as trees killed by insects and fire decompose, they’ll emit carbon themselves.”
David Peterson, a Forest Service research biologist who co-wrote the 265-page report, said “it’s just unprecedented things happening. We’re getting into extreme events that seem to be having more and more effects across broader landscapes.”
Meanwhile, as Joshua S Hill wrote about last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also issued a report which predicted that extreme rainfall events will increase significantly by the final decades of the century “due to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases.”
“We have high confidence that the most extreme rainfalls will become even more intense, as it is virtually certain that the atmosphere will provide more water to fuel these events,” said Kenneth Kunkel, Ph.D., senior research professor at CICS-NC and lead author of the paper.
The NOAA study cited the Northern Hemisphere as particularly vulnerable: a 20%-30% increase in “maximum precipitation is expected by the end of the 21st century if greenhouse gases continue to rise at a high emissions rate.”
The two reports come amidst dramatically diverging perspectives on climate change which still persist despite the frequent science-based warnings.
On the one hand, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said, in reaction to similar climate warnings released from a separate report from the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee:
“If we are smart, we listen to our doctors, and if we are stupid, we ignore our doctors and it takes a heart attack to realize that we should listen. The National Climate Assessment Report is our physical and these scientists can give us a prescription for what we need to do to improve our climate. It is our duty to listen to them and encourage action — action all over the country.”
Quite a different perspective is held by US Congressional Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) who, as recently as April 10, cited biblical floods in the Old Testament as evidence that there is no man-made component to climate change.
Speaking at a house sub-committee meeting which sought to promote the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Barton said, “I would point out that if you are a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the great flood was an example of climate change,” Barton said in a video first shown on the Buzzfeed website. “That certainly wasn’t because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy.”
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