Southern California is in flames. Wildfires are raging just north of Los Angeles, destroying whole communities just a short drive from downtown LA. Consuming everything in their path, the fires are only extinguished when they reach the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Commuters accustomed to massive traffic jams on the Highway 101 are now forced to run a gauntlet of flames.
— Patrick S. (@70sspacepunk) December 6, 2017
Climate scientists warn that the rains that might quench the inferno are at least 6 weeks away — and may never return. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California Los Angeles, tells The Verge, “By this time of year, usually, there’s been some rain that’s wetted things down. It’s just as dry as it was in the summer months.” His latest Tweet says it all.
Update: another day, another unbelievably dry forecast for the West Coast. This is a 16-day precipitation accumulation map from GFS model, which suggests that the next 16+ days could be *completely dry* across all of California, Oregon, and Washington!#CAwx #ORwx #WAwx #BCwx pic.twitter.com/pO169CuHl2
— Daniel Swain (@Weather_West) December 4, 2017
The dry weather is attributable to high pressure bubbles of warm air in the jet stream above the west coast of the United States. They lead to what is known as an “atmospheric ridge” that blocks moisture-laden storms from reaching the area. They were responsible for California’s epic five-year long drought that ended in northern California recently but still persists in the southern part of the state. Now a new atmospheric ridge is forming over the west coast and Swaim says it is impossible to predict how long it will last. “We were dry before and now the prospects for rain look even less likely because of the size of this thing,” Sweet says.
Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory led by Ivana Cvijanovic are studying how melting ice in the Arctic ocean may impact weather patterns in the US. The news is not good. They say as the Arctic warms, it starts a chain reaction that leads to more frequent atmospheric ridges along the west coast. That means less rain and longer fire seasons. The findings were published this week in the journal Nature Communications.
Cvijanovic is quick to point out that other factors may come into play that alter the conclusions of the research, among them changes in air pollution and greenhouse gasses, or volcanic activity over the next several decades. There is even a study out that suggests California may become wetter.
“The fire season in Southern California stops when you get enough rain that everything gets wet and turns plump and green,” says Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at UC Berkeley. “That’s the only thing that’s going to change the system down there.” Chance of that happening any time soon are virtually nonexistent.
Reactionaries will instantly claim all scientists are just self-aggrandizing fools who spout ridiculous findings to boost their own egos and keep the gravy train of research grants flowing. Fires are as normal as the full moon or the tides. Nothing to do with human activity. Nothing to see here, move along. Whether watching whole communities erupting in flames will divert anyone’s attention from tax cuts for the wealthy seems unlikely.
But for the rest of us who are not on the Koch Brothers payroll, the words of Elie Wiesel seem appropriate: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Destroying the earth in order to preserve individual fortunes seems more like a criminal enterprise than a viable economic system.