Essay and Photos by NWNL Director Alison M. Jones.
FIVE NWNL EXPEDITIONS have focused on CA’s recent multi-year drought, ended by winter 2017’s heavy snows and rains. I returned last week to report on any impacts from that drought – only to find drought is back already! Flying into Central California, I was stunned to see how arid this region is – again! It doesn’t take California long to dry out, especially with Climate Change consequences! This year, the state’s 2nd wettest winter was followed by its hottest summer. That combination on top of a 5-year accumulation of dead, droughty vegetation created this horrid tinderbox that is taking lives and destroying whole towns this week.
Sign warning of wildfire, in Kaweah River Valley, California, 2016
SINCE NWNL BEGAN IN 2007, our project has noted that wildfires degrade our rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. Losing forests means losing their storage and filtering of water in tree roots for later release. Forests also shade streams, creating cool habitats for fish, especially needed for spawning salmon and trout.
BUT, WE MISSED A 2007 ARTICLE noting high CO2 emissions from wildfires. Today, on a California hilltop above the Pacific Ocean, I’m monitoring the upcoming weekend’s Santa Ana winds and heat in the dry canyons behind me. Listening to local weather, I learned that 2 days of these CA fires emitted more CO2 than CA cars do in a year. Sadly, this worsens the global warming that intensifies hurricanes, sea level rise, droughts, high temperatures, local storms and yes, wildfires. Global warming is a vicious cycle we’ve created.
Forest fire smoke in the Kootenay Rockies, British Columbia, 2008
CALIFORNIA’S FIRE TSUNAMI rages on as I write, destroying lives and livelihoods. Its explosive blanket of kindling was created by 5 years of drought, as well as high temperatures and increased building on fire-prone hills. Now, the sweep of damaging urban wildfires has been lowered from treetops to rooftops. A NOAA analysis has connected these Oct 2017 CA fires to climate change, predicting that the state’s fire risks could quadruple by mid-century if CO2 emissions stay at current levels.
SINCE ARRIVING LAST WEEK, I’ve read much here in CA on how climate change and water-related consequences relate to wildfires. This year’s Whittier Fire above Lake Cachuma left its drainage slopes bare and vulnerable to massive erosion by future rains. Soil sliding into this reservoir will degrade water quality and decrease storage capacity for Santa Barbara’s main source of water. (Santa Barbara Independent, Sept 28-Oct 5, 2017, p 12). Also at peril from ravages of fire and landslides are municipal water infrastructure and distribution systems.
Lake Cachuma reservoir at 39% capacity from 3-year drought, 2014
A MORE GLOBAL FOCUS on this topic by Mongobay expands the impacts of wildfires beyond CA. Its weekly newsletter states that “forest degradation has turned the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon source; while globally, humanity’s carbon emissions are worsening drought and fires. Brazil’s rapid Amazon development deepens the problem. Researchers warn of mega-fires that could be coming, unless trends are reversed.”
TODAY, INDIVIDUALLY WE CAN ONLY HOPE for the best for Californians and their dramatically beautiful state. NWNL will keep raising awareness of the nexus of water-related issues, climate change and wildfires. Meanwhile, it’s time to reduce our individual CO2 footprints. We can offset our role in CO2 emissions by supporting climate-change research groups like TerraPass. For the record, all NWNL expedition travel and in-office energy consumption have been offset since we began in 2007.
Dry stream bed of the Santa Ynez River, California, 2014
TOMORROW, IT’S TIME TO DEMAND a much deeper commitment from our government to use every effort possible to stop wildfires, sea level rise, deadly heat waves, Category 5 hurricanes…. It’s simple, if we’ll look ahead, rather than gaze at today’s profit margins. Let’s not find ourselves mourning that we’ve stolen our youth’s future. Promoting ignorance with a myopic focus on today’s profits for a few will curse the future of all of us, even more than it has this month in Houston, Florida’’s Keys, The U. S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and now California.
Santa Ynez River, low stream bed due to 3-year drought, 2015
All photos © Alison M. Jones.