California faces summer of dangerous heat, extreme drought

Heat wave. Severe drought. Extreme wildfire.

As Southern California faces unprecedented drought constraints, long-range forecasts are predicting a summer filled with record temperatures, serendipitous landscapes and above-average wildfire potential, especially especially in the northern part of the state.

“The dice are loaded for a lot of big fires across the West,” said Park Williams, a climate scientist at UCLA. “And the reason for that is simple: Much of the Western United States is in a pretty severe drought.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said that this year’s spring-to-summer temperature outlook requires readings above normal for most of the Western world. .

At the same time, the agency also reported that while long-range forecasts suggest that the climate phenomenon known as La Niña is dissipating – sparking a glimmer of hope that California could experience a normal winter. in 2022 – now it looks like the “little girl” has stretched, possibly into a third year.

If NOAA is correct, the high temperatures and prolonged La Niña would have a major impact on agricultural and urban water use across the western United States, as well as on California’s increasingly severe fire season.

The federal government has announced that it will delay the release of water from Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, due to worsening drought conditions along the Colorado River. In an effort to boost the shrinking reservoir, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday that it plans to keep the water in check to reduce the risk of the lake falling below a level at which the Glen Canyon Dam will no longer produce electricity. again.

Unlike its wetter and better-known cousin, El Niño, La Niña typically brings dry winters to Southern California and the Southwest.

Now, with California’s rainy season mostly in the rearview mirror and hot dry summer fast approaching, forecasters say La Niña has a 59% chance of continuing through the summer and a 55% chance of continuing through the summer. ability to survive the fall.

Seasonal temperature forecast from May to July.

The seasonal outlook from NOAA calls for a hot summer in the West.

(Paul Duginski / Los Angeles Times)

Experts say this summer could repeat last year, when fires burned more than 2.5 million acres across California — more than any other, except in 2020.

“Last year, one thing that made the fire season particularly exciting was the extreme heatwaves that hit the West in the summer,” Williams said. “So we’re in a similar situation this year, where we’re going into the summer with extremely dry conditions, but we still don’t know if this year will have many record-breaking heat waves. more or not. That is why there is still a lot of uncertainty about how the fire season actually plays out.”

Planetary warming caused by human activity has increased the likelihood of severe heatwaves, and hotter temperatures have also exacerbated droughts by melting ice and snow earlier in the year and causing more rain falls as rain instead of snow.

“The likelihood of record heatwaves this year is higher than usual,” Williams said. “But there’s still room for hope that we get lucky.”

This year, California has seen 1,402 fires that have collectively burned 6,507 acres. That compares with 1,639 fires that burned 4,779 acres this time last year, said Captain Chris Bruno of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Cal Fire is currently running training courses in all of its programs, from helicopter rescues to hand-carried crews, and is bringing in seasonal workers to support operations aimed at achieving peak headcount — 10,000 on average — in June or July, he said.

La Niña’s refusal to proceed could also cause problems for places other than California.

La Niña affects climate globally, and is cyclical. It could bring drought to some parts of the world while bringing torrential rains to others.

Climatologist Bill Patzert said: “Both La Niña and El Niño are major disturbances in ‘force’. Several weather disasters around the world are attributed to climate change but are actually typical of the La Niña impacts we have seen in the past, although they may be enhanced or altered. due to warming caused by burning fossil fuels, he said. .

“La Niña and El Niño have always had big global footprints,” says Patzert.

While California has the driest January, February and March on record, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest are wet. Across the Pacific, Australians are fleeing record flooding. A prolonged drought has blanketed eastern equatorial Africa, raising the specter of famine for millions in the Horn of Africa. At the same time, parts of South Africa, such as Durban, received record rainfall. The downpours caused floods and landslides in Rio de Janeiro.

There are also other effects. La Niñas typically weaken wind shear in the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic, contributing to increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin. Both 2020 and 2021 are active hurricane seasons, with 2020 entering the record books as the year with the most named storms in any recorded season.

This year, forecasters at Colorado State University have predicted 19 named storms, including nine hurricanes. This will be
According to Patzert, the Atlantic hurricane season is above average for the seventh consecutive year.

In the northern United States, La Niñas is often associated with colder, stormier conditions than average, and increased rainfall. In the southern United States, they are known for warmer, drier, and less stormy conditions.

Thankfully, La Niña doesn’t last forever.

Both La Niña and El Niño are part of what is known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. Between them was a period of neutrality, which is what forecasters had thought we were heading for this spring.

Meanwhile, forecasters say dry conditions in the western US show signs of abating, at least for Southern and Central California. While the National Interagency Fire Center predicts that much of the northern part of the state will have an above-normal capacity for large-scale fires through August, meteorologists are calling for action. fires are almost below normal in the southern regions.

That’s because there isn’t enough rain to grow grasses commonly used to fuel lower-altitude fires in Southern and Central California, said US Forest Service meteorologist Matt Shameson.

“I would say good fuel is ankle-to-calf,” he says. “Normally, they’re about knee-to-waist high.”

The area has had no significant grass fires so far this year, which typically start at lower elevations in mid-April, he added.

Northern California gets more rain, especially in late March through April, so there’s a stronger grass growing, which helps spread the fire by converting it to larger fuel like trees, he said. . Also, Northern California in general has more vegetation, so fires there are generally not limited by the amount of fuel available.

“I think this year will mimic quite a bit compared to last year – the conditions are very similar,” said Shameson. Southern California had significantly fewer fires than average and less acreage burned, while Northern California broke records, with the Dixie Fire burning nearly 1 million acres and the first in recorded history. burned throughout the Sierra Nevada.

“I can tell you: They’re expecting another big fire season in the north,” he said.

The consequences of these repeated large, severe fires have the potential to be ecologically devastating and pose a real threat to the state’s climate goals, experts say. According to recently published research by scientists at UC Berkeley, the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade ranges, which now store nearly half of California’s carbon sequestration, have lost 1.1 million tons of their carbon stocks as a result. forest fires, drought and invasive pests.

“That’s a 35 percent drop in just one year,” said lead author Alexis Bernal, a research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Stephens Laboratory. “And we know that these disturbances will only increase in frequency and intensity with climate change.”

She and other scientists are calling on land managers to increase forest resilience by thinning vegetation and increasing the use of regulated fires to reduce forest density to fires. less severe through them.

Without intervention, she said, it is forecast that the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade regions will lose more than 75% of their terrestrial carbon stocks by 2069, sending about 860 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

“That means the Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade areas won’t be as much of a carbon sink as they are now,” she said. “It will be a source of carbon.”

Large, high-severity patches of fire can also lead to ecosystem collapse by converting forests to grass and shrubs, she added.

“These landscapes can no longer function as forests,” she said. “They could act like something else, which would be pretty devastating for all living things, including us, that rely on these forests for survival.” California faces summer of dangerous heat, extreme drought

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