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Fire danger in the high mountains is intensifying: That’s bad news for humans, treacherous for the environment

Fires are increasing in high mountain areas that rarely burned in the past. John McColgan, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Fire Service

by Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Mojtaba Sadegh, Boise State University

As wildfire risk rises in the West, wildland firefighters and officials are keeping a closer eye on the high mountains – regions once considered too wet to burn.

The growing fire risk in these areas became startling clear in 2020, when Colorado’s East Troublesome Fire burned up and over the Continental Divide to become the state’s second-largest fire on record. The following year, California’s Dixie Fire became the first on record to burn across the Sierra Nevada’s crest and start down the other side.

We study wildfire behavior as climate scientists and engineers. In a new study, we show that fire risk has intensified in every region across the West over the past four decades, but the sharpest upward trends are in the high elevations.

Fire burns in the mountains above a building and ranch fence.
In 2020, Colorado’s East Troublesome fire jumped the Continental Divide. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

High mountain fires can create a cascade of risks for local ecosystems and for millions of people living farther down the mountains.

Since cooler, wetter high mountain landscapes rarely burn, vegetation and dead wood can build up, so highland fires tend to be intense and uncontrollable. They can affect everything from water quality and the timing of meltwater that communities and farmers rely on, to erosion that can bring debris and mud flows. Ultimately, they can change the hydrology, ecology and geomorphology of the highlands, with complex feedback loops that can transform mountain landscapes and endanger human safety.

Four decades of rising fire risk

Historically, higher moisture levels and cooler temperatures created a flammability barrier in the highlands. This enabled fire managers to leave fires that move away from human settlements and up mountains to run their course without interference. Fire would hit the flammability barrier and burn out.

However, our findings show that’s no longer reliable as the climate warms.

We analyzed fire danger trends in different elevation bands of the Western U.S. mountains from 1979 to 2020. Fire danger describes conditions that reflect the potential for a fire to ignite and spread.

Over that 42-year period, rising temperatures and drying trends increased the number of critical fire danger days in every region in the U.S. West. But in the highlands, certain environmental processes, such as earlier snowmelt that allowed the earth to heat up and become drier, intensified the fire danger faster than anywhere else. It was particularly stark in high-elevation forests from about 8,200 to 9,800 feet (2,500-3,000 meters) in elevation, just above the elevation of Aspen, Colorado.

Chart showing changing wildfire risks in the high mountains
Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, CC BY

We found that the high-elevation band had gained on average 63 critical fire danger days a year by 2020 compared with 1979. That included 22 days outside the traditional warm season of May to September. In previous research, we found that high-elevation fires had been advancing upslope in the West at about 25 feet (7.6 meters) per year.

Cascading risks for humans downstream

Mountains are water towers of the world, providing 70% of the runoff that cities across the West rely on. They support millions of people who live downstream.

High-elevation fires can have a significant impact on snow accumulation and meltwater, even long after they have burned out.

For example, fires remove vegetation cover and tree canopies, which can shorten the amount of time the snowpack stays frozen before melting. Soot from fires also darkens the snow surface, increasing its ability to absorb the Sun’s energy, which facilitates melting. Similarly, darkened land surface increases the absorption of solar radiation and heightens soil temperature after fires.

The result of these changes can be spring flooding, and less water later in the summer when communities downstream are counting on it.

Fire-driven tree loss also removes anchor points for the snowpack, increasing the frequency and severity of avalanches.

A burned area on a mountain ridge with a large reservoir far below.
Wildfire burn scars can have many effects on the water quality and quantity reaching communities below. George Rose/Getty Images

Frequent fires in high-elevation areas can also have a significant impact on the sediment dynamics of mountain streams. The loss of tree canopy means rainfall hits the ground at a higher velocity, increasing the potential for erosion. This can trigger mudslides and increase the amount of sediment sent downstream, which in turn can affect water quality and aquatic habitats.

Erosion linked to runoff after fire damage can also deepen streams to the point that excess water from storms can’t spread in high-elevation meadows and recharge the groundwater; instead, they route the water quickly downstream and cause flooding.

Hazards for climate-stressed species and ecosystems

The highlands generally have long fire return intervals, burning once every several decades if not centuries. Since they don’t burn often, their ecosystems aren’t as fire-adapted as lower-elevation forests, so they may not recover as efficiently or survive repeated fires.

Studies show that more frequent fires could change the type of trees that grow in the highlands or even convert them to shrubs or grasses.

A team of pack mules carries supplies up a high mountain in Glacier National Park. Some of the trees have burned, even at this high elevation.
High-elevation tree species like whitebark pines face an increasing risk of blister rust infections and mountain pine beetle infestations that can kill trees, creating more fuel for fires. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Wet mountain areas, with their cooler temperatures and higher precipitation, are often peppered with hot spots of biodiversity and provide refuges to various species from the warming climate. If these areas lose their tree canopies, species with small ranges that depend on cold-water mountain streams can face existential risks as more energy from the Sun heats up stream water in the absence of tree shading.

While the risk is rising fastest in the high mountains, most of the West is now at increasing risk of fires. With continuing greenhouse gas emissions fueling global warming, this trend of worsening fire danger is expected to intensify further, straining firefighting resources as crews battle more blazes.

Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, Postdoctoral Researcher in Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Mojtaba Sadegh, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, Boise State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

More than two dozen cities and states are suing Big Oil over climate change – they just got a boost from the US Supreme Court

photo credit: mphotoi via Canva

by Patrick Parenteau, Vermont Law & Graduate School and John Dernbach, Widener University

Honolulu has lost more than 5 miles of its famous beaches to sea level rise and storm surges. Sunny-day flooding during high tides makes many city roads impassable, and water mains for the public drinking water system are corroding from saltwater because of sea level rise.

The damage has left the city and county spending millions of dollars on repairs and infrastructure to try to adapt to the rising risks.

Future costs will almost certainly be higher. More than US$19 billion in property value, at today’s dollars, is at risk by 2100 from projected sea level rise, driven by greenhouse gas emissions largely from the burning of fossil fuels. Elsewhere in Honolulu County, which covers all of Oahu, many coastal communities will be cut off or uninhabitable.

Unwilling to have their taxpayers bear the full brunt of these costs, the city and county sued Sunoco LP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and other big oil companies in 2020.

Their case – one of more than two dozen involving U.S. cities, counties and states suing the oil industry over climate change – just got a break from the U.S. Supreme Court. That has significantly increased their odds of succeeding.

Suing over the cost of climate change

At stake in all of these cases is who pays for the staggering cost of a changing climate.

Local and state governments that are suing want to hold the major oil companies responsible for the costs of responding to disasters that scientists are increasingly able to attribute to climate disruption and tie back to the fossil fuel industry. Several of the plaintiffs accuse the companies of lying to the public about their products’ risks in violation of state or local consumer protection laws that prohibit false advertising.

The governments in the Honolulu case allege that the oil companies “are directly responsible” for a substantial rise in carbon dioxide emissions that have been driving climate change. They say the companies should contribute their fair share to defray some of the costs.

The gist of Honolulu’s complaint is that the big oil companies have known for decades that their products cause climate change, yet their public statements continued to sow doubts about what was known, and they failed to warn their customers, investors and the public about the dangers posed by their products.

Were it not for this deception, the lawsuit says, the city and county would not be facing mounting costs of abating the damage from climate change.

Importantly, the complaint is based on state – not federal – law. It alleges that the defendants have violated established common law rules long recognized by the courts involving nuisance, failure to warn and trespass.

The city and county want the companies to help fund climate adaptation measures – everything from building seawalls and raising buildings to buying flood-prone properties and restoring beaches and dunes.

Supreme Court could have killed these cases

Not surprisingly, the oil companies have thrown their vast legal resources into fighting these cases.

On April 24, however, they lost one of their most powerful arguments.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear challenges in the Hawaii case and four others involving the seemingly technical question of which court should hear these cases: state or federal.

The oil companies had “removed” the cases from state court to federal court, arguing that damage lawsuits for climate change go beyond the limits of state law and are governed by federal law.

That theory would have derailed all five cases – because there is no federal common law for greenhouse gases.

The court made that position clear in 2011 in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut. Several state and local governments had sued five major power companies for violating the federal common law of interstate nuisance and asked for a court order forcing these companies to reduce their emissions. The Supreme Court refused, holding that the federal Clean Air Act displaced federal common law for these gases.

In Native Village of Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., a federal court of appeals extended that holding to also bar claims for monetary damages based on federal common law.

Sandbags sit outside a home near a beach in Oahu, Hawaii, where waves have eaten into the shoreline almost up to the house.
Several coastal communities, including in Honolulu County, facing increasing erosion want oil companies to help pay for protective infrastructure. AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy

To avoid this fate, Honolulu and the other plaintiffs focused on violations of state law, not federal law. Without exception, the federal courts of appeals sided with them and sent the cases back to state court.

What happens next?

The Honolulu case leads the pack at this point.

In 2022, the 1st Circuit Court in Hawaii denied the oil companies’ motion to dismiss the case based on the argument that the Clean Air Act also preempts state common law. This could open the door for discovery to begin sometime this year.

In discovery, senior corporate officers – perhaps including former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who was secretary of state under Donald Trump – will be required to answer questions under oath about what the companies knew about climate change versus what they disclosed to the public.

Rex Tillerson, a smiling older man in a suit and tie, walks out of a courthouse with security guards.
In 2019, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson testified in a securities fraud lawsuit brought by the New York attorney general’s office. The judge ruled in Exxon’s favor. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Evidence from Exxon documents, described in a recent study by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, shows that the company’s own scientists “knew as much as academic and government scientists knew” about climate change going back decades. But instead of communicating what they knew, “Exxon worked to deny it,” Supran and Oreskes write. The company overemphasized uncertainties and cast doubt on climate models.

This is the kind of evidence that could sway a jury. The standard of proof in a civil case like Honolulu’s is “preponderance of the evidence,” which roughly translates to 51%. Ten of the 12 jurors must agree on a verdict.

Any verdict likely would be appealed, perhaps all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it could be years before the Honolulu case is resolved.

Lawsuits don’t begin to cover the damage

It is unlikely that even substantial verdicts in these cases will come close to covering the full costs of damage from climate change.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2022 alone the U.S. sustained 18 weather and climate disasters that each exceeded $1 billion in damage. Together, they cost over $165 billion.

But for many of the communities most at risk from these disasters, every penny counts. We believe establishing the oil companies’ responsibility may also discourage further investments in fossil fuel production by banks and brokerage houses already nervous about the financial risks of climate disruption.

Patrick Parenteau, Professor of Law Emeritus, Vermont Law & Graduate School and John Dernbach, Professor of Law, Widener University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How wildfire smoke can harm human health, even when the fire is hundreds of miles away – a toxicologist explains

The sunset in Jersey City, N.J., glows orange through smoke from wildfires in Canada in May 2023. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

by Christopher T. Migliaccio, University of Montana

Smoke from more than 200 wildfires burning across Canada has been turning skies hazy in North American cities far from the flames. We asked Chris Migliaccio, a toxicologist at the University of Montana who studies the impact of wildfire smoke on human health, about the health risks people can face when smoke blows in from distant wildfires.

What’s in wildfire smoke that’s a problem?

When we talk about air quality, we often talk about PM2.5. That’s particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller – small enough that it can travel deep into the lungs.

Exposure to PM2.5 from smoke or other air pollution, such as vehicle emissions, can exacerbate health conditions like asthma and reduce lung function in ways that can worsen existing respiratory problems and even heart disease.

But the term PM2.5 only tells you about size, not composition – what is burning can make a significant difference in the chemistry.

A map of North America shows where wildfire smoke from fires in Alberta, Canada, was forecast to blow across the U.S. and eastern Canada. Light smoke reaches as far south as northern Texas and Tennessee.
Smoke from wildfires in Canada on May 21, 2023, was visible across a large part of the U.S. FireSmoke Canada

In the northern Rockies, where I live, most fires are fueled by vegetation, but not all vegetation is the same. If the fire is in the wildland urban interface, manufactured fuels from homes and vehicles may also be burning, and that’s going to create its own toxic chemistry. Chemists usually talk about volatile organic compounds, (VOCs), carbon monoxide and PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons produced when biomass and other matter burns having the potential to harm human health.

How does inhaling wildfire smoke harm human health?

Illustration of a small section of lungs showing the alveoli and, within the alveoli, a close up of a microphage
Where macrophages are found in alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs.

If you have ever been around a campfire and got a blast of smoke in your face, you probably had some irritation. With exposure to wildfire smoke, you might also get some irritation in the nose and throat and maybe some inflammation.

As with a lot of things, the dose makes the poison – almost anything can be harmful at a certain dose.

Generally, cells in the lungs called alveolar macrophages will pick up the particulates and clear them out – at reasonable doses. It’s when the system gets overwhelmed that you can have a problem.

One concern is that smoke can suppress macrophage function, altering it enough that you become more susceptible to respiratory infection. A colleague who looked at lag time in the effect of wildfire smoke exposure found an increase in influenza cases after a bad fire season. Studies in developing countries have also found increases in respiratory infections with people who are cooking on open fires in homes.

The stress of an inflammatory response can also exacerbate existing health problems. Being exposed to wood smoke won’t independently cause someone to have a heart attack, but if they have underlying risk factors, such as significant plaque buildup, the added stress can increase the risk.

Researchers are also studying potential effects on the brain and nervous system from inhaled particulate matter.

When smoke blows over long distances, does its toxicity change?

We know that the chemistry of wildfire smoke changes. The longer it’s in the atmosphere, the more the chemistry will be altered by ultraviolet light, but we still have a lot to learn.

Researchers have found that there seems to be a higher level of oxidation, so oxidants and free radicals are being generated the longer smoke is in the air. The specific health effects aren’t yet clear, but there’s some indication that more exposure leads to greater health effects.

The supposition is that more free radicals are generated the longer smoke is in atmosphere and exposed to UV light, so there’s a greater potential for health harm. A lot of that, again, comes down to dose.

A photo looking out at the Denver skyline shows a very hazy cities.
Denver was listed among the world’s worst cities for air pollution on May 19, 2023, largely because of the wildfire smoke from Canada. Colorado Air Pollution Control Division

Chances are, if you’re a healthy individual, going for a bike ride or a hike in light haze won’t be a big deal, and your body will be able to recover.

If you’re doing that every day for a month in wildfire smoke, however, that raises more concerns. I’ve worked on studies with residents at Seeley Lake in Montana who were exposed to hazardous levels of PM2.5 from wildfire smoke for 49 days in 2017. We found a decrease in lung function a year later. No one was on oxygen, but there was a significant drop.

This is a relatively new area of research, and there’s still a lot we’re learning, especially with the increase in wildfire activity as the planet warms.

What precautions can people take to reduce their risk from wildfire smoke?

If there is smoke in the air, you want to decrease your exposure.

Can you completely avoid the smoke? Not unless you’re in a hermetically sealed home. The PM levels aren’t much different indoors and out unless you have a really good HVAC system, such as those with MERV 15 or better filters. But going inside decreases your activity, so your breathing rate is slower and the amount of smoke you’re inhaling is likely lower.

A satellite animation shows smoke moving from fires in Alberta across Canada and into New England.
A satellite captures wildfire smoke on May 16, 2023. NASA EarthData

We also tend to advise people that if you’re in a susceptible group, such as those with asthma, create a safe space at home and in the office with a high-level stand-alone air filtration system to create a space with cleaner air.

Some masks can help. It doesn’t hurt to have a high-quality N95 mask. Just wearing a cloth mask won’t do much, though.

Most states have air quality monitors that can give you a sense of how bad the air quality is, so check those sites and act accordingly.

Christopher T. Migliaccio, Research Associate Professor in Toxicology, University of Montana

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Growing insurance crisis spreads to Texas

Read the full story at ClimateWire.

Florida came first. Then Louisiana.

Now an insurance crisis that has swept across the Gulf Coast is spilling into Texas, where increasingly scarce property coverage has forced tens of thousands of coastal homeowners to buy policies from a state-chartered insurance program.

The rapid growth has alarmed officials and insurers. And it’s raised concerns that if a major storm hits Texas, so many claims will be filed that the state-chartered insurer will force insurance companies and residents statewide to help pay them.

Here’s what we know about how climate change is influencing tornadoes

Read the full story in the Washington Post.

The link between warming global temperatures and extreme weather is clearest with unprecedented heat waves and extraordinary amounts of precipitation. While it’s harder to identify the relationship between climate change and tornado outbreaks — such as the ones that killed more than two dozen people across the central United States on Friday — scientists saythere are reasons to believe a connection exists.

There is “ample evidence” of increasing tornado risks during less typically stormy seasons, for example, said John Allen, an associate professor of meteorology at Central Michigan University. This winter brought record tornado activity across much of the South.

And new research suggests that as average temperatures rise, the sorts of intense storms that frequently spawn tornadoes are becoming more common outside parts of the Midwest known as “tornado alley.” A recent study forecast that by 2100, the average annual number of supercells — massive, rotating storms known for producing the most severe tornadoes — to hit the eastern United States will increase by 6.6 percent.

Rising seas swell in southeastern U.S. — study

Read the full story at ClimateWire.

Sea levels have surged along the coastlines of the southeastern United States, new research finds — hitting some of their highest rates in more than a century.

They’ve risen more than a centimeter a year over the last decade — about triple the global average — and the effects on communities near the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean already are being observed in the form of increased flooding, more severe hurricanes and eroding shorelines.

“We have seen the impacts quite significantly,” said Sönke Dangendorf, an expert in coastal engineering at Tulane University and lead author of the new study.

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Communications, is the latest to point out the trend. Another study, published earlier this month in the Journal of Climate, highlighted a similar pattern — sea-level rise of more than a centimeter per year since 2010 along the Gulf and Southeast coasts.

Bringing climate risk home, one property at a time

Read the full story at The Hill.

As part of a broader attempt to visualize future climate risk, insurance companies, federal mortgage managers and consumer financial authorities are partnering with First Street Foundation to bolster the U.S. economy against the rising risk of extreme weather.

Climate exposure represents a serious threat to the U.S. housing market, which may be overvalued by more than $200 billion dollars, according to First Street data published in Nature.

On Wednesday, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation — better known as Freddie Mac — was the latest to announce that it would join dozens of other federal and private companies in using First Street data to evaluate climate risk to the properties it helps finance.

Hundreds of hazardous sites in California are at risk of flooding as sea level rises, study finds

Read the full story at CNN.

Hundreds of hazardous industrial sites that dot the California coastline – including oil and gas refineries and sewage-treatment plants – are at risk of severe flooding from rising sea level if the climate crisis worsens, new research shows.

If planet-warming pollution continues to rise unabated, 129 industrial sites are estimated to be at risk of coastal flooding by 2050 according to the study, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology by researchers from University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley, as well as Climate Central.

Venice is saved! Woe is Venice.

Read the full story in the New York Times.

After centuries of flooding, Venice has at long last raised seawalls to save itself from high water. They have already protected the city from catastrophic floods. But climate change and rising seas pose a gnawing question. Will Venice one day have to cut itself off from the waters that are its lifeblood?