US south-west in grip of historic ‘megadrought’

US south-west in grip of historic ‘megadrought’

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: May 29, 2020 SNIP: When Ken Pimlott began fighting US wildfires at the age of 17, they seemed to him to be a brutal but manageable natural phenomenon. “We had periodic [fire] sieges in the 80s, but there were breaks in between,” said Pimlott, the former head of the California department of forestry and fire protection. But no longer. “That doesn’t really happen any more. Now you can’t even blink” between fires, he said. “We’re seeing the kinds of fires we have never seen before.” A recent study published in the journal Science helps explains why, revealing that the south-western US is in the grip of a 20-year megadrought – a period of severe aridity that is stoking fires, depleting reservoirs and putting a strain on water supplies to the states of the region. “You see impacts everywhere, in snowpacks, reservoir levels, agriculture, groundwater and tree mortality,” said co-author Benjamin Cook, of Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. “Droughts are these amazingly disruptive events. Water sits at the foundation of everything.” Researchers compared soil moisture records from 2000-2019 to other drought events from the past 1,200 years. They found that the current period is worse than all but one of five megadroughts identified in the record. Unlike past megadroughts – brought on by natural fluctuations in the Earth’s climate – this current drought has been heavily influenced by human-induced climate change, “pushing what would have been a moderate drought in south-western North America into megadrought territory”, according to the study. “Global warming has made the drought much worse than it otherwise would have been,” said...
Victoria should expect one or two more ‘megafires’ before end of decade

Victoria should expect one or two more ‘megafires’ before end of decade

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: May 18, 2020 SNIP: Victoria is experiencing an increasing number of megafires that are threatening some of the state’s most important ecological habitats, a new study in a leading international journal has found. Many areas had seen multiple bushfires since 1995 at a frequency that was much too high to allow forests time to recover, risking the beginning of ecosystem collapse, the research said. Areas worst hit by bushfires were native forests used for logging, the research found, with 63% of those areas burned since 1995. In late 2019 and early 2020, about 1.5m hectares of Victorian forests burned – the largest area since 1939, when 3.4m hectares were hit. Across the state’s most important areas for forest-dependent threatened species, the analysis found 57% had burned in the most recent fires. From 1950 to 2002, Victoria had not experienced a year when fire had burned through more than 600,000 hectares. But since 2003, there had been three “megafire” years when more than 1m hectares of forest had burned. Some 44% of protected areas had burned from 1995 to present, the study found, compared with 63% of native forests used for logging. Biomass was left behind during logging operations, and younger regrowth trees also tended to dry out forest areas and create dense zones that were more prone to fire, causing impacts that lasted decades. The study compared the severity of fires across old-growth, mature and plantation forests, and found that old-growth forests not impacted by logging burned less severely than other...
‘Blatant manipulation’: Trump administration exploited wildfire science to promote logging

‘Blatant manipulation’: Trump administration exploited wildfire science to promote logging

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: January 24, 2020 SNIP: Political appointees at the interior department have sought to play up climate pollution from California wildfires while downplaying emissions from fossil fuels as a way of promoting more logging in the nation’s forests, internal emails obtained by the Guardian reveal. The messaging plan was crafted in support of Donald Trump’s pro-industry arguments for harvesting more timber in California, which he says would thin forests and prevent fires – a point experts refute. The emails show officials seeking to estimate the carbon emissions from devastating 2018 fires in California so they could compare them to the carbon footprint of the state’s electricity sector and then publish statements encouraging cutting down trees. The records offer a look behind the scenes at how Trump and his appointees have tried to craft a narrative that forest protection efforts are responsible for wildfires, including in California, even as science shows fires are becoming more intense largely because of climate change. James Reilly, a former petroleum geologist and astronaut who is the director of the US Geological Survey, in a series of emails in 2018 asked scientists to “gin up” emissions figures for him. He also said the numbers would make a “decent sound bite”, and acknowledged that wildfire emissions estimates could vary based on what kind of trees were burning but picked the ones that he said would make “a good story”. Scientists who reviewed the exchanges said that at best Reilly used unfortunate language and the department cherry-picked data to help achieve their pro-industry policy goals; at worst he and others exploited a disaster and...
Fires set stage for irreversible forest losses in Australia

Fires set stage for irreversible forest losses in Australia

SOURCE: AP DATE: January 19, 2020 SNIP: Heat waves and drought have fueled bigger and more frequent fires in parts of Australia, so far this season torching some 40,000 square miles (104,000 square kilometers), an area about as big as Ohio. With blazes still raging in the country’s southeast, government officials are drawing up plans to reseed burned areas to speed up forest recovery that could otherwise take decades or even centuries. But some scientists and forestry experts doubt that reseeding and other intervention efforts can match the scope of the destruction. The fires since September have killed 28 people and burned more than 2,600 houses. Before the recent wildfires, ecologists divided up Australia’s native vegetation into two categories: fire-adapted landscapes that burn periodically, and those that don’t burn. In the recent fires, that distinction lost meaning — even rainforests and peat swamps caught fire, likely changing them forever. Flames have blazed through jungles dried out by drought, such as Eungella National Park, where shrouds of mist have been replaced by smoke. “Anybody would have said these forests don’t burn, that there’s not enough material and they are wet. Well they did,” said forest restoration expert Sebastian Pfautsch, a research fellow at Western Sydney University. “I’m expecting major areas of (tree) loss this year, mainly because we will not have sufficient seed to sow them,” said Owen Bassett of Forest Solutions, a private company that works with government agencies to re-seed forests by helicopter following fires. In both Australia and western North America, climate experts say, fires will continue burning with increased frequency as warming temperatures and drier weather...
‘Silent death’: Australia’s bushfires push countless species to extinction

‘Silent death’: Australia’s bushfires push countless species to extinction

SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: January 3, 2020 SNIP: Close to the Western River on Kangaroo Island, Pat Hodgens had set up cameras to snap the island’s rare dunnart – a tiny mouse-like marsupial that exists nowhere else on the planet. Now, after two fires ripped through the site a few days ago, those cameras – and likely many of the Kangaroo Island dunnarts – are just charred hulks. “It’s gone right through the under storey and that’s where these species live,” said Hodgens, an ecologist at Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, a not-for-profit conservation group. “The habitat is decimated.” On Friday afternoon word came through that three other Land for Wildlife sites protecting dunnarts and other endangered species, including the southern brown bandicoot, had also been consumed by fire on the island off the South Australian coast. Prof Sarah Legge, of the Australian National University, said the prognosis for the Kangaroo Island dunnart was “not good” and its plight was symbolic of what was happening all across the east coast of Australia. “Many dozens” of threatened species had been hit hard by the fires, she said. In some cases “almost their entire distribution has been burnt”. So far, the Australian bushfire season has burned through about 5.8m hectares of bush, known across the world for its unique flora and fauna. Ecologists say the months of intense and unprecedented fires will almost certainly push several species to extinction. The fires have pushed back conservation efforts by decades, they say, and, as climate heating grips, some species may never recover. Climate scientists have long warned that rising greenhouse gases will spark...