Ecosystems are stressed. Life’s operating systems are acting out. The signs are there: Carbon-based energy addictions are taking their toll. Who says you can’t change the weather?
The vastness of the American West holds rainforests, deserts, and everything in between, so weather patterns and moisture vary. Nonetheless, we have been experiencing a historic drought for about a decade in significant parts of the region. As topsoil dries out, microbial dynamics change and native plants either die or move uphill toward cooler temperatures and more moisture. Wildlife that depends on the seeds, nuts, leaves, shade and shelter follows the plants—if it can.
Plants and animals are usually able to adapt to slow and steady changes in their habitat, but rapid and uncertain seasonal transformations in weather patterns mean that the timing for such basic ecological processes as seed germination, pollination, migration and hibernation is also disrupted. The challenge of adapting to such fundamental changes can be overwhelming.
And if evolving at warp speed isn’t enough, plants, animals, and birds are struggling within previously reduced and fragmented habitats. Wildlife already thrown off the mothership now finds the lifeboats, those remnants of their former habitats, on fire.
Cue the inferno
These past few years, mega-fires in the West have become ever more routine. Though their estimates and measurements may vary, experts who study these phenomena all agree that wildfires today are bigger, last longer, and are more frequent. A big fire used to burn perhaps 30 square miles. Today, wildfires regularly scorch 150-square-mile areas.
For two weeks last month the Arizona inferno known as the Wallow, the largest fire in Arizona history, remained too big to touch with mere human tools like hoses, shovels, saws, and bulldozers. Walls of flame 100 feet high rolled over the land like a tsunami from Hades. The heat from such a fire is so intense and immense that it can create small tornadoes of red embers that cannot be knocked down and smothered by water or chemicals. These are not your grandfather’s forest fires.
Although Western politicians like to blame the dire situation on tree-hugging environmentalists who bring suit to keep loggers from thinning and harvesting the crowded forests, the big picture is far more complicated. According to Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University, a renowned forest ecologist, the problem has been building for decades.
Historically, Western forests were relatively thin, and grasses, light shrubs, and wildflowers thrived under their canopies. Fires would move through every few years, clearing the accumulated undergrowth and resetting the successional clock. Fire, that is, was an ecological process. Then, in the 1880s, cattle were brought in to graze the native grasses under the forest canopy. As the grass disappeared, fires were limited and smaller trees were able to mature until the land became overcrowded. Invasive species like highly flammable cheat grass also moved in, carried there and distributed in cow dung. Then, foresters began suppressing fires to protect the over-stocked timber that generated revenues.
Next, a decade of drought weakened millions of trees, making them susceptible to voracious beetles that gnaw them to death. Warmer air carries more moisture, so winters, while wetter than normal, are not as cold. Typical temperatures, in fact, have become mild enough that the beetles, once killed by wintry deep freezes, are now often able to survive until spring, which means that their range is expanding dramatically. Now, thanks to them, whole mountainsides across the west have turned from green to brown.
Finally, spring runoff that used to happen over three months now sometimes comes down torrentially in a single month, which means that the forests are dry longer. Even our lovely iconic stands of aspen trees are dying on parched south-facing slopes.
Wally Covington estimates that a total of about half-a-million square miles of Western forests, an area three times the size of California, is now at risk of catastrophic fires. As ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger observed in 2008 when it was California’s turn to burn, the fire season is now 365 days long.
The fire next time
That may explain why ”smoke season” began so early this year, overlapping the spring flood season. Here in Utah, it was an extremely wet winter. Watersheds are at 200% to 700% of the normal snowpack (“normal” being an ever more problematic concept). Spring weather has become increasingly weird and unpredictable. Last year we had record-breaking heat and early monsoons in May. This year it was unusually cold and damp. The mountains held on to all that accumulating snow, which is now melting quickly.
So although skiers are still riding the mountain slopes of northern Utah, river-rafting guides in the south, famous for their hunger for whitewater excitement, are cancelling trips on the Colorado and Green Rivers because they are flowing so hard and high that navigating them is too risky. In our more sedate settings, suburbs and such, sandbags are ubiquitous. Basement pumps are humming across the state. Reservoirs were emptied ahead of the floods so that they could be refilled with excess runoff, but there is enough snowmelt in our mountains this year to fill them seven times over. Governor Herbert went on television to urge parents to keep children away from fast-moving streams that might sweep them away. Seven children nonetheless drowned in two weeks.
The old gospel got it mostly right when God told Noah, “No more water, the fire next time.” In the West we know that it is not actually a question of either/or, because they go together. First, floods fuel growth, then growth fuels fires, then fires fuel floods. So all that unexpected, unpredicted moisture we got this winter will translate into a fresh layer of lush undergrowth in forests that until very recently were drying up, ravaged by beetles, and dying. That beautiful scenery is also a ticking tinderbox.
When fire removes trees, brush, and grasses that absorb spring runoff and slow the flow, the next round of floods is accelerated. If the fire is intense enough to bake soils into a water-resistant crust, the next floods will start landslides and muddy rivers. The silt from all that erosion will clog reservoirs, reducing their capacity both to store water and to mitigate floods. That’s how a self-reinforcing feedback loop works. Back in the days when our weather was far more benign and predictable, this dynamic relationship between fire and flood was predictable and manageable. Today, it is not.
Biological diversity, ecological services like pollination and water filtration, and the powerful global currents of wind and water are the operating systems of all life on Earth, including humans. For thousands of years, we have depended on benign and predictable weather patterns that generally vary modestly from year to year. The agricultural system that has fed us since the dawn of history was based on a climate and seasonal swings that were familiar and expectable.
Ask any farmer if he can grow grain without rain or plant seeds in a flooded field. Signs that life’s operating systems are swinging chaotically from one extreme to another should be a wake-up call to make real plans to kick our carbon-based energy addictions while conserving and restoring ecosystems under stress.
The droughts, pestilence, and fires we are experiencing in the West are logical and obvious signs that the planet is overheating. We would be wise and prudent to pay attention and act boldly. In the process, we’ll need a new vision of who we are and what we are about.
Chip Ward, co-founder of HEAL Utah, now writes from Torrey. He is the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the Land.