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The Exceptional U.S. Wildfire Season of 2012

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 5:11 PM GMT on December 31, 2012

The 2012 U.S. fire season was the 3rd worst in U.S. history, with 9.2 million acres burned--an area larger than the state of Maryland. Since the National Interagency Fire Center began keeping records in 1960, only two years have seen more area burned--2006, when 9.9 million acres burned, and 2007, when 9.3 million acres burned. Although the 2012 fire season was close to a record for most acreage burned, the total number of fires--55,505--was the lowest on record, going back to 1960, said scientists at a December 2012 press briefing at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. The average U.S. fire size in 2012 was the highest on record. A September 18, 2012 report, The Age of Western Wildfires, published by the non-profit research group Climate Central, found that the number of large and very large fires on Forest Service land is increasingly dramatically. Compared to the average year in the 1970s, during the past decade there were seven times as many fires larger than 10,000 acres each year, and nearly five times as many fires larger than 25,000 acres. On average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago, and the burn season is two and a half months longer than 40 years ago. The increase in large fires is correlated with rising temperatures and earlier snow melt due to climate change, but fire suppression policies which leave more timber to burn may also be a factor.

The Top 5 U.S. Wildfires of 2012
Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, New Mexico: Largest fire in New Mexico history
The Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire started as two fires that merged, both caused by lightning. The Whitewater fire was first detected on May 16th, and the smaller Baldy fire was detected a few days earlier on May 9th. These fires then merged on May 24th and together burned a total of 297,845 acres until it was 100% contained on July 23th. Mid-July rain showers helped fire crew contain this fire. This fire was difficult to contain due to rugged terrain with gusty winds, and relative humidity less than 3%. The fire consumed timber, mixed conifer, poderosa pine, pinon/juniper, and grasses. The suppression costs of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire surpassed $23 million, according to the GACC. This is the largest fire in New Mexico history, which surpassed the previous record of 150,000 acres consumed by the Las Conchas Fire in 2011.


Figure 1. Wunderphoto of Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire submitted by AZMountaineer21.


Figure 2. Satellite image showing the complex nature of the Whitewater-Baldy fire with multiple hot spots in red outlines with multiple smoke plumes. Image courtesy of NASA's MODIS Aqua on June 7th, 2012.

Rush Fire, California: 2nd largest in California history
The Rush Fire started from lightning on Aug. 12th and burned through Aug. 30th, consuming 315,577 acres of northeastern California portions of western Nevada. The rapid and uncontrollable fire spread was due to extremely difficult terrain, gusty winds, and extremely dry grass, sagebrush, and junipers. Fire crews reported, "Live sage brush was as dry as dead sage brush." This fire was rated a major threat to federally protected wild horses, burros, and grouse by the BLM Eagle Lake Field Office. Once this fire reached into Nevada, where it burned over 43,000 acres, it threatened a major natural gas line as well as power transmission lines. This fire cost the U.S. approximately a total of $15 million. The portion of the fire in California reached 271,911 acres, and now constitutes the second largest California fire in modern history. The largest California fire remains the Cedar Fire in 2003, which consumed 273,246 acres.


Figure 3. Progression of the Rush Fire, August 12 - 20, 2012. Image courtesy of Inciweb.org, Rush Fire maps.

Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado: most expensive in Colorado history
The Waldo Canyon Fire was the most expensive wildfire in Colorado history, costing $353 million, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but investigators have determined that it was started within 3 miles of the Waldo Canyon trail head, off of U.S. 24, and was human-caused. The burn started on June 23rd and burned through July 10th, burning a total of 18,247 acres of brush, mountain shrub, oak, grass, pinion juniper, ponderosa pine, douglas fir, spruce, and limber pine. This fire was a major threat to neighborhoods and homes, as it started only four miles from Colorado Springs. Approximately 347 homes were burned and 2 people were killed by the Waldo Canyon Fire. Due to the proximity of this fire to nearby neighborhoods, over 32,000 residents were evacuated.


Figure 4. Image showing how close the Waldo Canyon fire was to homes in Colorado Springs. AP photo.


Figure 5. Flames from the Waldo Canyon Fire rolling down a hillside approaching a Colorado Springs neighborhood. AP photo.

High Park Fire, Colorado: 2nd largest in Colorado history
The High Park Fire was caused by lightning and first detected on June 9th in the mountains west of Fort Collins. The fire burned 87,284 acres of timber, grass, and brush until it was 100% contained on July 1st, making this the second largest fire in Colorado history. The largest Colorado fire remains the Hayman Fire, which burned 137,760 acres in 2002. The High Park Fire killed one person, and was briefly the most destructive fire in Colorado history, after destroying 259 homes. However, this record was quickly surpassed by the Waldo Canyon Fire just a few days later.


Figure 6. Plane throwing fire retardant onto the High Park Fire. AP photo.


Figure 7. The huge plume of the High Park Fire seen from a neighborhood. Wunderphoto submitted by turbguy.

Chips Fire, California: $55 million in suppression costs
California's Chips Fire began on July 29th and burned a total of 75,431 acres in northern California, including 48,297 acres of the Plumas National Forest, 18,374 acres of Lassen National Forest, and 8,762 acres of privately owned land. The cause of the fire is unknown. The fire forced hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail to bypass this section by hiking Hwy 70/89 or by taking a bus and skipping this section all together. The fire was contained Aug. 31st, with a total of $55 million in suppression costs. Mainly timber was consumed in this fire.


Figure 8. Satellite image of fires in northern California on August 11 2012, including the Chips fire. Image courtesy of NASA's MODIS Aqua on August 11, 2012.


Figure 9. Burn scar from the Chips Fire. Burned vegetation appears in red, unburned areas are in green. Image courtesy of NASA's Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite on September 1, 2012.

Western U.S. wildfires expected to increase due to climate change
Expect a large increase in fires over much of the globe late this century due to climate change, says research published this June in the Journal Ecosphere. Using fire models driven by output from sixteen climate models used in the 2007 IPCC report, the researchers, led by Max Moritz of UC Berkeley, found that 38% of the planet should see increases in fire activity over the next 30 years. This figure increases to 62% by the end of the century. However, in many regions where precipitation is expected to increase--particularly in the tropics--there should be decreased fire activity. The scientists predicted that 8% of Earth will see decreases in fire probability over the next 30 years, and 20% will see decreases by the end of the century. The models do not agree on how fire danger will change for a large portion of the planet--54% for the period 2010 - 2039, and 18% for the period 2070 - 2099. Six key factors were found to control fire probabilities in the models. Most important was how much vegetation there was (NPP, Net Primary Productivity). Three other factors, about half as important, were precipitation of driest month, mean temperature of warmest month, and the difference between summer and winter temperature. Two other minor factors were mean temperature of wettest month, and annual precipitation. The authors found that future fire occurrence appears to primarily be a function of available moisture in many areas, and that the expected global increase in temperature of 3.5°C used in the models will not become the single dominant control on global wildfire. In the U.S., the regions most at risk of increased fires are the tundra regions of northern Alaska, and the West, with Arizona and Colorado at particularly high risk.

Related: Wildfires in the U.S. will be at least twice as destructive by 2050, burning around 20 million acres nationwide each year, according to a federal report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012.


Figure 10. Predicted fractional change in fire probability for the period 2010 - 2039 (top) and 2070 - 2099 (bottom) for the average of sixteen climate models used for the 2007 IPCC report. For the 2010 - 2039 period, the models agree that 8% of Earth will see decreases in fire probability, 38% will see increases, and the models are too uncertain to tell for the other 54%. For the 2070 - 2099 period, the models agree that 20% of Earth will see decreases in fire probability, 62% will see increases, and the models are too uncertain to tell for the other 18%. Image credit: Climate change and disruptions to global fire activity, Moritz et al., 2012, from the journal Ecosphere.


Coolest fire video of 2012: A fire tornado in Curtin Springs, Australia, from mid-September, 2012. NOAA comments: "While rare, fire tornadoes (also known as fire whirls) generally form when superheated air near the surface of a large fire zone rises rapidly in an airmass where sufficient horizontal or vertical vorticity (spin in the atmosphere) is also present. Much like a dust devil or whirlwind, the rapidly rising air above a wildfire can accelerate and turn the local vorticity into a tight vertical vortex, now composed of fire instead of dust."

Kari Kiefer and Jeff Masters

Fire Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

The first mesoscale discussion of the year!



MESOSCALE DISCUSSION 0001
NWS STORM PREDICTION CENTER NORMAN OK
1210 PM CST THU JAN 03 2013

AREAS AFFECTED...SRN NM THROUGH SWRN TX

CONCERNING...HEAVY SNOW

VALID 031810Z - 032315Z

SUMMARY...OCCASIONAL MODERATE TO HEAVY SNOW WITH RATES LOCALLY UP TO
1 INCH PER HOUR IS EXPECTED TO PERSIST INTO THE EARLY EVENING ACROSS
SRN NM INTO WEST TEXAS. TENDENCY SHOULD BE FOR HEAVIER SNOW TO
DEVELOP FARTHER SWD TOWARD THE BIG BEND AREA OF SW TX LATER THIS
AFTERNOON OR EVENING.

DISCUSSION...AREAS OF SNOW WITH EMBEDDED BANDS OF LOCALLY MODERATE
TO HEAVY SNOW CONTINUES WITHIN A BROAD ZONE OF WARM ADVECTION FROM
SRN NM THROUGH WRN AND SWRN TX. THE PRECIPITATION HAS INCREASED IN
COVERAGE AND INTENSITY THROUGH THE MORNING IN ASSOCIATION WITH A
SHORTWAVE TROUGH MOVING ENEWD THROUGH NRN MEXICO. THE 12Z RAOB FROM
EL PASO INDICATED AN UNSTABLE LAYER BETWEEN 600 AND 400 MB
SUGGESTING SOME CONVECTIVE ENHANCEMENT IS LIKELY OCCURRING. AN UPPER
JET STREAK LOCATED OVER NRN MEXICO WILL SHIFT NEWD TOWARD THE BIG
BEND THIS EVENING. THIS FEATURE WILL CONTRIBUTE TO INCREASING ASCENT
WITHIN DENDRITIC GROWTH LAYER...LIKELY AUGMENTING SNOWFALL RATES
FROM THE MOUNTAINS OF SWRN TX INTO THE BIG BEND AREA LATER THIS
AFTERNOON AND EVENING.

..DIAL.. 01/03/2013


ATTN...WFO...SJT...MAF...ABQ...EPZ...

LAT...LON 32180728 33020538 32700286 32030154 31140126 30170254
29500350 30740507 31690661 32180728
1002. Patrap
Climate change may drastically alter region

By Paul Gabrielsen

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Posted: 01/02/2013 04:33:22 PM Climate change may drastically alter region

By Paul Gabrielsen

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Posted: 01/02/2013 04:33:22 PM PST


Lake Tahoe is "the fairest picture the whole earth affords," Mark Twain once wrote. Its crystal blue waters, surrounded by stunning snowy mountains, define one of California's crown jewels as an American landmark. It attracts 3 million skiers, boaters, campers, hikers and other visitors each year.

But it could look very different in 100 years.

Climate change could profoundly affect the Tahoe area, scientists say, taking the snow out of the mountains and the blue out of the water.

What's ahead for region
Last winter's ski season showed a glimpse of what a future, warmer Tahoe may look like. Snow didn't start falling in the mountains until January. The California Ski Industry Association reported that 25 percent fewer skiers visited the Sierra last season. For a region that boasts a $5 billion year-round economy, that hurts.

New climate models show that in a worst-case scenario average temperatures in the Tahoe area could rise as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That's equivalent to moving Lake Tahoe from its current elevation of 6,200 feet above sea level to 3,700 feet, climate scientists report in a special upcoming January issue of the journal Climatic Change. That's as high as the peak of Contra Costa County's Mount Diablo, which gets only an inch of snow a year.

Simulations also suggest that the percent of precipitation that falls as snow may decrease to as little as 10 percent by the end of the century. It's now 30 percent. In time, the snow line will move up the mountains, said Robert Coats of UC Davis, a co-editor of the special issue.
Tahoe ski resorts could feel a big pinch from a changing climate. "They're pretty concerned, and they'd better be," Coats said.

Resorts higher up in the mountains, such as Heavenly, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, will likely keep their snow, he said. "In fact they may actually benefit in the short run as the snow disappears from lower elevations."

Lower resorts face issues
Homewood Ski Resort, a lower-elevation resort without an extensive snowmaking system, is well aware of the threat of climate change. Last season, Homewood didn't open until Dec. 14, said resort spokesman Paul Raymore, and it wasn't able to open any chair lifts until January. More winters such as last year's would be disastrous. "We do rely on Mother Nature and what she provides in terms of natural snowfall," Raymore said.

While doing little to curb global climate change, the resort does encourage skiers to use public transit, now offering $5 off lift tickets for those who do. "We have a vested interest in ensuring that the mountains stay cold," Raymore said.

To be sure, people should keep in mind that the climate models aren't necessarily forecasts, said Michael Dettinger, a climate modeler at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego and one of the authors of the special Climatic Change issue. "They're what-if predictions," he said, adding that scientists can't say yet which scenario is most likely to unfold.

But even under the most optimistic conditions, Dettinger said, climate change will become a problem for the Tahoe region to deal with on the same scale as other pressing environmental issues, such as the invasive Asian clam, which scientists have been battling for a decade.

It's not just the mountains that would look different in a warmer climate, according to Climatic Change. The worst-case scenarios also predict a devastating ecological collapse of the lake and loss of its signature clarity and blue color.

Keeping water mixed
Many lakes undergo a process every year, or every few years, that keeps the lake water well-mixed. As water temperature changes through the seasons, it creates circulation in the lake. The warm water on top of the lake in summer cools off in the fall and sinks, mixing with cold deep water. In a warmer climate, the surface water won't cool off enough to mix with deeper water.

If mixing doesn't happen, then oxygen from the surface doesn't reach the lake floor. Without oxygen, the chemistry of the lake floor changes, and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen are released into the water. Excess nutrients lead to algal blooms which, as any swimming pool owner knows, turn the water from clear blue to a murky green.

It's a serious threat, Climatic Change authors say, "to the characteristics of the lake that are most highly valued."

"The lake more or less crashes," Dettinger said. "It goes to a bad place and doesn't return."

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's job is to respond to today's challenges and anticipate tomorrow's in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and city, county and state governments. The agency, created by California and Nevada in 1969, regulates every development in the Tahoe area to ensure sustainable growth.

Threats to the lake's ecosystem -- including climate change -- pushed the agency to update its regional plan, which had been in place since 1987, said agency spokesman Jeff Cowen. The new 2012 regional plan focuses on restoring lake water quality and redeveloping "green" town centers, Cowen said. It also calls for updates every four years and includes a "sustainable communities strategy" to meet California's standards for greenhouse gas emission reduction in the region.

Some years wet, some dry
Frank Gehrke, a snow surveyor for California's Department of Water Resources, has been working in the Sierra for more than 30 years. He's seen his share of wet years and dry years. "The overall trend is overwhelmed by the difference from year to year," he said.

Although last winter's ski season was hard on the resorts, the previous season boasted early heavy snow -- and skiing lasted until the Fourth of July.

Now that the best- and worst-case scenarios have been modeled, scientists will now refine their models further to pin down the most likely climate scenario. "I think it's going to be pretty hard to put a date on when there will be no snowfall at all in the Tahoe Basin," Coats said. "I think that may be pretty far out in the future."

This season is off to a good start. Homewood opened before Halloween, thanks to early snowstorms. But good years come and go. And Mark Twain's vision of Lake Tahoe may not last forever.
JeffMasters has created a new entry.
Howdy,

Yes, I got a message to stop running a script on here too, that was slowing me down.

Lake Okeechobee is making its own daily wind vortex.

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You know, I thought the division between the north and the south disappeared, uh, 150+ years ago. It's a shame adults still act so childish.
Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
You know, I thought the division between the north and the south disappeared, uh, 150 years ago. It's a shame adults still act so childish.




Enough, Cody.

We're next door, BTW.

Link