Fire Tornadoes? That Can't Be Good!
California's on fire again. The Carr fire in Northern California has burned over 700 buildings and reached Redding, creating a "fire whirl," which sometimes is called a "fire tornado." And within the last month, there have been record heat waves in Europe, including wildfires in Greece, plus flooding AND record high temperatures in Japan, and how about 90 degrees F in Sodanklya, Finland, which is 59 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Lots of scenes of disaster like something from a Roland Emmerich movie, only without plucky teens and a cute dog. Hey, maybe we could talk about climate change, you think?
First off, the usual disclaimer: Climate isn't weather. Weather is what's happening at the moment, and climate is the long-term trend, which is why heavy snow in winter doesn't "disprove" climate change when the overall trend has been decades of warming. Thing is, climate models have predicted for years that as the planet gets warmer, we'll be seeing more extreme weather, which we have no damn shortage of this summer. You can't say the fires in California or any other extreme weather event are caused solely by climate change, but scientists have no problem saying they're made worse by it, and it would be damned silly to claim they're wholly unrelated.
"This is the face of climate change," said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, and one of the world's most eminent climate scientists. "We literally would not have seen these extremes in the absence of climate change."
"The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle," he told the Guardian. "We are seeing them play out in real time and what is happening this summer is a perfect example of that."
The direct cause of the deadly heat waves in Europe is the result of the Jet Stream stalling out. Usually, that atmospheric current brings cold Arctic air over the Atlantic to Europe, but instead, hot air is just collecting over the continent. But the behavior of the Jet Stream is definitely being affected by climate change, especially the warming of the Arctic (bye-bye permafrost, hello methane!) and the loss of sea ice.
Prof Mann said that asking if climate change "causes" specific events is the wrong question: "The relevant question is: 'Is climate change impacting these events and making them more extreme?', and we can say with great confidence that it is."
For another f'rinstance, consider Hurricane Harvey last year. We've always had hurricanes, yes. But climate change has increased ocean temperatures, and warmer air holds more moisture. Those conditions made Harvey a hell of a lot wetter and meaner than a "normal" hurricane would have, setting records for how much rain fell from a single storm. We can't say global warming caused Harvey, but scientists believe it increased Harvey's rainfall by 15 percent over what would be expected if global temperatures hadn't increased.
If you're into science stuff, Scientific American has a good 'splainer on efforts to more directly measure, and even predict, the degree to which any given extreme weather event can be attributed to climate change. It's sobering, as it damn well should be. And no amount of snotty tweets about Al Gore travelling by jet will make the reality of climate change go away.
Ah, but about those "fire tornadoes" -- climate change deniers will probably have no end of fun saying "well actually, they're not tornadoes, because tornadoes are caused by thunderstorms, stupid." So yes, if you want to get all technical about it, while the colloquial name is used by meteorologists, the term "fire whirl" is more accurate. But goddamn, that doesn't make the phenomenon any less disturbing, or the devastation any less:
It begins to form when air starts to rotate, usually near the surface of the earth. The air is very hot because of the fire, but also due to the hot ambient air temperatures that set the stage for the fire in the first place. Heat rises, so that spinning air at the surface gets stretched high into the atmosphere, forming a rotating column of hot air that pulls ash and flame along with it.
The exact causes for the rotation aren't entirely clear, but the effects are: In California, burning embers were sucked up into the whirl, which helped the fire make it past the Sacramento River and light more fires. Higher temperatures, more extreme fires, more damn embers burning more damn forests and cities.
Fortunately, some idiot undoubtedly saw a burned-out Prius in the wreckage on TV, so that's probably proof the libs are full of it, don't you think?
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.