Shedding hazy light on climate change
The large orb barely over the horizon in front of me was a hazy orange, not bright yellow, when I turned right at Craig just after daybreak last Thursday, headed toward Steamboat Springs for my first meeting as a new member of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission. The sight that might normally have required sunglasses or pulling down the visor instead was shaded by smoke from several nearby fires that have charred thousands of northwest Colorado acres.
That’s chump change, in terms of acreage, when compared to what’s happening elsewhere in the West. More than a million acres have burned in Montana, where lodges along the iconic Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park are threatened. Flames charred the Columbia Gorge separating Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. Smoke from fires in southwest Oregon fills the air in Salt Lake City.
As we returned from southern California last week, smoke was visible from the largest wildfire in the history of Los Angeles. Farther north, near Yosemite National Park, a grove of 2,700-year-old Sequoias was threatened. Elsewhere in northern California, dozens of homes were lost in still another huge wildfire. State officials say 3,700 fires burned more than 200,000 California acres in the first seven months of 2017, up significantly from last year. Unseasonably warm temperatures across the West, such as those we saw during our time in San Diego, offer little chance of relief.
Last Thursday night, during a lakeside outing at the Stagecoach State Park, I talked briefly with a young firefighter on a brief 24-hour break from duties to the north of Colorado before heading to Utah the next day.
“That’s probably a 1,000-hour tree over there,” he said, referring to the moisture contained in that tree and the amount of time it would take for it to dry out and burst into flames in a fire. “We’re seeing two-hour trees up north.”
All that brings me to thoughts of climate change and the unwillingness of many, including some of our leaders, to confront what may be the defining issue of our times, the one which, more than anything else, will write our legacy.
To be certain, the causes of wildfires are as varied as the terrain they burn. Human carelessness, lightning strikes, in the case of one northern California burn it was gunshots … those are some of the direct causes. But the real damage comes after the first embers flicker. Then increasing temperatures, widespread drought, historic forest management practices and changes in seasonal weather patterns all come into play to compound matters.
Warmer winters leave beetles alive to kill more trees, which in turn creates hillsides of tinder awaiting the first spark. Drought and winds blow desert dust onto mountain snowpack, accelerating spring melting and diminishing water available in hot summer months. Just a few degrees of warming make Denver feel like Albuquerque. A few more and it’ll be like Tucson. Those sorts of changes impact agricultural crops and grazing practices.
Late-arriving winters and earlier springs cause economic damage to our ski resorts. Troubled rivers affect boating, rafting and angling. I’ve hunted big game in shirtsleeves in November at 10,000 feet when a dozen years ago I was bundled up and trudging through snow over those same hills and valleys.
Still, despite the studied opinions of an overwhelming majority of scientists worldwide, some continue to resist the notion that any of that change might be man-caused, that we have the ability to make minor changes in our lives that could help reverse climate trends and mitigate the damage we’re already experiencing. They rely on the small minority of researchers who offer expedient analyses that support political philosophies, not science.
I’ve said before that if we were dealing with similarly obvious symptoms of a physical disease, we wouldn’t be arguing about whether it was real. We’d instead be moving heaven and earth to find a cure, funding research, testing solutions, doing all any reasonably intelligent person would do to solve the problem.
As a country, we acted quickly in response to the tragedies on September 11, 2001. Sixteen years later, we’re an outlier in a worldwide effort to deal with climate change, an impending tragedy just as compelling.