Will global warming desiccate the Southwest?

‘A normal year in the Southwest is now drier than it once was’

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Will the Southwest’s life-giving rains fade away? @bberwyn photo.

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A federal climate assessment projects soaring temperatures for the Southwest.

Staff Report

A subtle long-term shift in atmospheric patterns driven by global warming could lead to longer and more intense droughts in the southwestern U.S. and other semi-arid regions. Most climate models suggest that that a belt of higher average pressure that now sits closer to the equator will move north. This high-pressure belt is created as air that rises over the equator moves poleward and then descends back toward the surface.

That shift may already be affecting the climate of the Southwest, as moisture-bearing weather patterns have become more rare in the region, according to a new study. Previous research has suggested that the region’s forests and fish and birds are in big trouble. In Australia, researchers are nearly certain that global warming was a factor in a record-breaking 2013 heatwave. A federal climate assessment released in 2013 also identified similar concerns for the Southwest.

“A normal year in the Southwest is now drier than it once was,” said Andreas Prein, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who led the study. “If you have a drought nowadays, it will be more severe because our base state is drier.” Continue reading

Wildfires burned across 10 million acres in 2015

Feds spend more than $2.6 billion on fire suppression

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Wildfire activity surged in 2015. Graph courtesy NIFC.

By Bob Berwyn

For the first time in the era of modern record-keeping, wildfires burned across more than 10 million acres in 2015, mainly due to a series of large fires in Alaska.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, there were more than 50 fires that exceeded 50,000 acres, and 20 fires exceeded more than 100,000 acres. The fires destroyed more than 4,500 homes and other structures and killed 13 wildland firefighters.

The big wildfire season came after two-year lull, when the total wildfire footprint stayed below 5 million acres. For the last years, the average now stands at about 6.6 million acres.

The uptick in fires is no surprise to experts, who have been warning that global warming will result in bigger burns. Alaska, for example, reported its second-warmest year on record in 2015. Since 2000, fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildland fires has increased.

In 2013, scientists linked a spate of massive Siberian wildfires with a “stuck” weather pattern associated with global warming. Overall, scientists say, those links are becoming more clear. It’s also clear that forests will have a more difficult time rebounding from fires as temperatures warm. Continue reading

2015 in review – environment

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A NASA satellite shows oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill spreading across the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Oil spill impacts

Looking back over some of the top environmental stories published in Summit Voice, it’s interesting to see some of the long-running threads, including continued news about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. A half decade after BP failed drilling operation spewed millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists continue to track the impacts, including massive amounts of oil buried deep in sea-bottom sediments, as described in this Jan. 2015 story.

Monarchs bounce back

For some good news in January, an annual monarch butterfly survey showed a slight recovery in population numbers, up to 56.5 million from the previous year’s low of 34 million. But that was still more than  80 percent below the 20-year average and down 95 percent from numbers tallied in the mid-1990s. Near-perfect conditions during breeding season helped bolster the numbers in 2015. Read more here.

 

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Monarch butterflies are struggling, but population surveys in 2015 suggested that, with some help, the species can recover. @bberwyn photo.

Continue reading

2015 will be second-hottest year on record in Europe

Summer heat waves fueled drought, forest insect outbreaks

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2015 temperatures across most of Europe were well above the 1981-2010 average. Map courtesy European Regional Climate Centre.

Staff Report

With little snow in the Alps for the start of the winter season, Europeans won’t be surprised to hear that 2015 will enter the climate annals as the second-warmest year on record, just slightly cooler than last year.

Much of eastern Europe was exceptionally warm in 2015, and central Europe baked under a summer heatwave that brought drought conditions to many breadbasket regions, stressing forests and affecting crop yields. In southern Austria, a small forest fire burned in early December. Continue reading

NASA tracking this year’s global El Niño impacts

Wildfire risk growing in tropics

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A strong El Niño is peaking across the Pacific Ocean this winter.

Staff Report

Along with being one of the strongest El Niños on record, this year’s edition of the cyclical weather event in the Pacific will be one of the most studied.

NASA, for example, has been tracking the effects of El Niño via satellite data, which shows global impacts, from increasing fire danger in some tropical regions to a reduction of certain types of pollution in other areas.

Some of the findings were presented this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, where researchers said that atmospheric rivers, significant sources of rainfall, tend to intensify during El Niño events, and that California may see some relief from an extreme multiyear drought. Continue reading

Study says 1980s saw major climate shift

Golden toads were discovered in Coata Rica in 1966. None have been seen since 1989, despite intensive surveys. They are presumed extinct. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE.

Golden toads were discovered in Costa Rica in 1966. None have been seen since 1989, despite intensive surveys. They are presumed extinct. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

‘The 1980s regime shift may be the beginning of the acceleration of the warming shown by the IPCC …’

Staff Report

By taking a big-picture look at the Earth’s various systems over time, researchers say they’ve been able to pinpoint a major global climate shift starting in the late 1980s, triggered by anthropogenic warming and the 1982 El Chichón volcanic eruption in Mexico.

The new study, published recently in Global Change Biology, documents a range of associated events caused by the shift, including a 60 percent increase in winter river flow into the Baltic Sea and a 400 percent increase in the average duration of wildfires in the Western United States. Continue reading

Some of 2014’s extreme weather linked to climate change

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Extreme weather, coming to you, thanks to global warming

What’s normal?

Staff Report

Climate and weather experts say some of 2014’s extreme weather events can be linked with human activities, including the global warming caused by greenhouse gases.

In a report released this week, researchers specifically identified tropical cyclones in the central Pacific, heavy rainfall in Europe, drought in East Africa, and stifling heat waves in Australia, Asia, and South America with human activities.

“For each of the past four years, this report has demonstrated that individual events, like temperature extremes, have often been shown to be linked to additional atmospheric greenhouse gases caused by human activities, while other extremes, such as those that are precipitation related, are less likely to be convincingly linked to human activities,” said Thomas R. Karl, L.H.D., director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Continue reading

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