Earth is burning with more extreme wildfires. Atmospheric scientist Peter Bernath with breaking science on fires and ozone damage; Dr. Andrew Sullivan of CSIRO, Australia on new UNEP report: “Spreading Like Wildfire”. Emissions and temperatures reach new high, polar ice is low, Antarctic heat crazy. News from the climate front.
GREENHOUSE EMISSIONS ARE HIGHER THAN EVER!!
As the world rocks to war and economic turmoil, humans continue to pour more and more greenhouses gases into the atmosphere. The International Energy Agency reported world emissions from burning fossil fuels reached a new record in 2021. Emissions increased an astounding 6%, overcoming the previous smaller reduction in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. Any hope for survival begins when we face the truth. Despite all the blah, blah, blah and green promises, we are rachetting up the climate crisis with the most pollution in history.
And the sad news is that burst of new carbon came mainly from increasing use of coal for electricity and industry. The IEA says, quote:
“Coal accounted for over 40% of the overall growth in global CO2 emissions in 2021, reaching an all-time high of 15.3 billion tonnes. CO2 emissions from natural gas rebounded well above their 2019 levels to 7.5 billion tonnes. At 10.7 billion tonnes, CO2 emissions from oil remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels because of the limited recovery in global transport activity in 2021, mainly in the aviation sector.”
However, energy from renewables hit an all-time high, small as that is. That high mark comes despite overall losses of hydro power due to drought, mainly in the United States and Brazil. Drought? I wonder why that is becoming so common…
China was the world leader in new coal use and emissions. In 2021 China experienced it’s single biggest demand for electricity, growing 10% in one year. Despite installing massive wind and solar farms, China had to fill the new demand with coal, and lots of it. India did the same, without doing much on renewable energy.
Emissions are slowly dropping in the United States, down 4% in 2021. The European Union dropped 2.4%, and Japan is down about 2% from 2019 levels. The trajectory is slightly better, but it means those countries continue to add gigatonnes of new greenhouse gases every year. We are still accelerating into the climate crisis. As a result, Earth is developing into the home of extreme wildfires. You are about to hear scientists Peter Bernath from Canada, and Andrew Sullivan in Australia. Let’s set the stage.
NOAA predicts dry spring, heat and continuing drought for most of Western U.S. This adds water stress to low reservoirs, hardship for natural species, and all the right conditions for another bad wildfire season in the West. Most of Texas did not “green-up” this spring, leaving a heavy fire fuel load in the continuing drought there. Texas authorities set the fire risk there to the highest category. And it’s begun with wildfires in Texas already, in March.
WILDFIRES AFFECT EVERYONE
People in the Eastern United States and parts of Europe find fire hard to worry about. After a storm-laden spring with whiplash between Arctic cold and abnormal hot spells, they may be glad to see a few dry days. But very large fires affect everyone, everywhere.
Even jolly wet England has an increase in wildfires this year as “Firefighters tackle 20 wildfires in one weekend“.
Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds of miles, affecting people’s health in cities far away. Smoke from California and Oregon was tracked in New England last year. Indonesian fires traveled across the sea to blanket other countries like Malaysia and Singapore. Globally, over 30,000 people die due to fire smoke every year.
But now in a new interview, we learn extreme wildfires also damage the ozone layer, high in the stratosphere. Atmospheric scientist Peter Bernath reports changes in the stratosphere never seen before, after the Black Summer fires in Australia in 2019 and 2020.
ARE WILDFIRES HIDING OUR TRUE WARMING?
Smoke from extreme wildfires act to cool the world – temporarily. Could back-to-back super fire years be hiding the true warming of the world? Are we still shielded from our true impacts, even as we experience record-setting heat already?
Our second guest, Dr. Andrew Sullivan from CISRO, Australia outlines the latest wildfire assessment from UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. As expected, with warming some regions will get wetter. But global wildfires, especially extreme fires, will increase with every decade, as we continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Super fires are already here. They create their own weather. Rapid updrafts of pyrocululonimbus clouds, like superheated vertical winds, puncture the troposphere boundary to arrive in the stratosphere. In the high stratosphere newly understood fire particles spread around the world, for a year or more. That temporarily adds cooling, against our heating trend. With greenhouse gas pollution, we change everything – all the way to the outer layers of Earth’s atmosphere, to the very borders of space.
PETER BERNATH: HOW WILDFIRES DAMAGE THE OZONE LAYER
Extreme wildfires will increase as the planet heats up. New research shows an unexpected twist: these fires are changing chemistry in the upper atmosphere. The impacts can influence global temperatures and damage the ozone shield protecting us from harmful radiation arriving from space.
Peter Bernath is the Research Professor at the University of Waterloo, and Principal Investigator for the Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment or ACE. His team uses the Canadian SCISAT satellite and ground measurements. Dr. Bernath got his Ph.D. at MIT and has lectured at universities in Florida and Arizona. He is also an Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk Virginia.
Dr. Peter Bernath, University of Waterloo
The latest paper title, and main subject of this interview is: “Wildfire smoke destroys stratospheric ozone.” That was published in Science on March 17, 2022.
Reporting on explosions at reactors in Fukushima Japan in 2011, I learned radioactivity becomes global only when it reaches beyond the troposphere, up to the stratosphere. That is true of smoke particles as well. Once in the stratosphere, smoke particles last longer (a year or more) because they are above the weather – they cannot be rained out.
The new paper studies a newly reported “pyrocumulonimbus” clouds generated by the Black Summer bushfires in Australia in 2019 and 2020. Similar high level monster clouds arose in North America during the huge fires all along the West Coast last year.
However, Peter tells us smoke in the stratosphere from the Australian bushfires of 2019/20 did not affect the size of the ozone hole over Antarctica. Ozone was damaged but closer to the tropics. That ozone layer damage is not permanent, and without more fires, should recover in a year or so. But as our second guest tells, there will be more fires.
IS WILDFIRE SMOKE HIDING WARMING? [PART II]
But the big smoke story is more than ozone pollution. It adds to the hundreds of thousands who die every year from air pollution. It also may be hiding our true warming level. According to the Science press release:
“...a March 2021 study in Science found that stratospheric smoke injection from the 2019-2020 Australian wildfires contributed to record-breaking levels of atmospheric aerosols over the Southern Hemisphere, which caused marked cooling over cloud-free ocean regions.”
Bernath also tells us the Australia wildfires created changes in the atmosphere not seen before. The Abstract for the paper says:
“The injected smoke particles produce unexpected and extreme perturbations in stratospheric gases beyond any seen in the previous 15 years of measurements…”
The Canadian SciStat satellite used by the Bernath team is a little wonder. The satellite is small, less than 2 meters in diameter. It takes measurements at dawn and dusk, higher than a weather balloon but lower than most satellites- a low Earth orbit. When the satellite was launched in 2003, it’s life expectancy was two to five years. Nineteen years later it is still reporting the chemical makeup of the atmosphere. That gives scientists a preferred longer record, meaning more confidence in the results. The Canadian government keeps promising a new atmospheric science satellite to replace the SciStat, but never comes up with the actual money to fund it. We all need this tool!
SciStat satellite, Canada.
ANDREW SULLIVAN: THE FUTURE OF WILDFIRES
Wildfires far beyond normal are coming. The latest summary of fire science comes in a new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Norwegian non-profit called GRID-Arenda.
Australians already live the new fiery future. That is where we reached one of the principal authors of this report, one of the leading wildfire experts in the world, Dr. Andrew Sullivan. He leads the Bushfire Behaviour and Risks team at CSIRO, The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Watch a short YouTube video (2 min 43 sec) introducing you to that fire lab here.
Andrew Sullivan at work in the CSIRO fire lab.
An unusual forest fire just missed operating nuclear reactors in South Korea. The Florida Pandhandle is burning. The Copernicus satellite service reports record high fire intensity recorded in South America in the first three months of this year. Is this normal, and when it comes to wildfires, should we expect normal anymore?
As regular listeners know, I have a vested interest in the future of fires. British Columbia was raked by wild fires last summer. My home was threatened. Our listeners all along the West from California to Colorado are worried too. This new report, “Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires” is the best summary of what we know so far. With lots of experience from his fire lab to the front lines, Andrew Sullivan is one of the best guides to the report, and the wildfires overall.
While fires ramp up, people continue to move into the forest interface zone, with suburbs springing up among the trees. Isn’t the fire situation a little like coastal flooding – death and damage is worse because more people move into the danger zone?
Speaking of flooding, Eastern Australia just went through incredible floods. Here in B.C., last summer we had torrential rains and never-before-seen landslides with floods, along with the big heat dome and fires. I ask Dr. Sullivan about the connections between floods and fires.
According to the new report,
there will 30% more extreme fires by 2050, because of climate change.
In 2013, I interviewed British Columbia silviculturalist John Betts. He stressed the need to control forest fuels BEFORE super-fires develop. I see this again in the UNEP report. I ask Andrew: are we mis-spending money for fire protection? According to the UNEP press release: “The paper calls for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting their investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.”
The UNEP press release continues:
“The report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, finds an elevated risk even for the Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires. The report is released before representatives of 193 nations convene in Nairobi for the resumed 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), between 28 February and 2 March, 2022.
The publication calls on governments to adopt a new ‘Fire Ready Formula,’ with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for response. Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning and prevention receive less than one per cent.”
SEE ALSO this 2021 paper “Apocalypse now: Australian bushfires and the future of urban settlements”.
FACTS ON AUSTRALIAN FIRES OF 2019/20 (from the paper above)
“The 2019/2020 Australian fires resulted in the tragic loss of over 400 lives, 33 of them directly from the fires and 417 from smoke inhalation. Over 3000 homes and 7000 facilities and outbuildings were destroyed; 12.6 million hectares burned; and over 100,000 head of stock lost. Nearly 80 percent of Australians were affected either directly or indirectly by the fires. Tragically, an estimated one billion native animals died, a scenario almost unimaginable. The fires blanketed urban areas with heavy smoke. During January 2020, the national capital Canberra measured the worst air quality index of any major city in the world.”
A NEW STUDY OF EXTREME FIRES IN AMERICA
In case you doubt we are in new fire territory, a new study in Science Advances is titled: “U.S. fires became larger, more frequent, and more widespread in the 2000s”. Led by Virginia Iglesias, the authors say, quote:
“We found compelling evidence that average fire events in regions of the United States are up to four times the size, triple the frequency, and more widespread in the 2000s than in the previous two decades. Moreover, the most extreme fires are also larger, more common, and more likely to co-occur with other extreme fires. This documented shift in burning patterns across most of the country aligns with the palpable change in fire dynamics noted by the media, public, and fire-fighting officials.”
We now see climate change in action. There are so many hot spots and emergencies in living systems. The Arctic is abnormally warm in March 2022. The Svalbard measuring station north of Norway was from 3.9 degrees C to 5.5 C hotter than normal. An early melt is happening, and Arctic sea-ice is currently at it’s fourth lowest state on record. Antarctic sea ice is also very low.
The Washington Post reported March 18 “It’s 70 degrees warmer than normal in eastern Antarctica. Scientists are flabbergasted.” Jason Samenow and Dasha Patel write:
“Antarctic climatology has been rewritten,” tweeted Stefano Di Battista, a researcher who has published studies on Antarctic temperatures. He added that such temperature anomalies would have been considered “impossible” and “unthinkable” before they actually occurred.”
Three cautions: One: that 70 degrees is Fahrenheit, being around 40 degrees Celsius. Two: that does not mean Antarctica is suddenly melting: for example temperatures at the high Concordia research station would “normally” be around -50 degrees C rose, for about 3 days, to -12 degrees C. – still below freezing. Third: The warmth comes from a wet atmospheric river which may add snow to the interior of Antarctica, which helps delay melting and may cool Earth longer.
Even so, temperatures in Antarctica rose beyond anything experienced before. Nothing in scientific models showed this as possible. This record-shattering heat in Antarctica again demonstrates we are moving into a new climate, beyond human experience, and beyond our prediction and imagination.
Australian coral experts are investigating yet another major die-off in the Great Barrier Reef, the nursery of the sea. Planes are out measuring to find the extent of what could be the sixth major coral bleaching event, most in the last 10 years. We are watching a life-source flickering out, because of hot oceans, because of our emissions.
CHATHAM REPORT –
TO 7 DEGREES C HOTTER BY END OF CENTURY?!?
Canadian climate scientist Paul Beckwith makes YouTube videos explaining the latest science and reports on climate change. His specialty is the Arctic, but Paul surveys science all over the world. In mid-March he caught up with a report from the British Institution called Chatham House. You may have heard of “Chatham House Rules”. People meet in groups but they are never named. They have an organization, with staff. Four of their staff released a report in September 2021 called “Climate Change Risks 2021” Their sub-head says “The risks are compounding, and without immediate action the impacts will be devastating.”
Here are some highlight quotes from that Chatham House report:
“Any relapse or stasis in emissions reduction policies could lead to a plausible worst case of 7°C of warming by the end of the century (10 per cent chance).” says Chatham House report
“Unless NDCs are dramatically increased, and policy and delivery mechanisms are commensurately revised, many of the impacts described in this research paper are likely to be locked in by 2040 and become so severe they go beyond the limits of what nations can adapt to.”
“If emissions do not come down drastically before 2030, then by 2040 some 3.9 billion people are likely to experience major heatwaves, 12 times more than the historic average. By the 2030s, 400 million people globally each year are likely to be exposed to temperatures exceeding the workability threshold. Also by the 2030s, the number of people on the planet exposed to heat stress exceeding the survivability threshold is likely to surpass 10 million a year.”
“To meet global demand, agriculture will need to produce almost 50 per cent more food by 2050. However, yields could decline by 30 per cent in the absence of dramatic emissions reductions. By 2040, the average proportion of global cropland affected by severe drought will likely rise to 32 per cent a year, more than three times the historic average.”
That is from the Chatham House report “Climate Change Risks 2021”.
Last week, the world lost a great campaigner. I first met Lafcadio Cortesi when he was a forest campaigner for Greenpeace International in the early 1990’s. He was born an American, a fan of the Greatful Dead. Lafcadio moved with his young family to Indonesia. He adopted Indonesia dress and learned to speak the language of Bahasa. Lafcadio loved the jungles, jungle creatures from Sumatra through Borneo to Papua New Guinea.
Cortesi worked tirelessly to save those forests for Rainforest Action, Forest Ethics, and more recently for the Canadian organization Canopy. He was in irrepressible force. Lafcadio loved to laugh, to dance, to infect people with joy. Everyone knew when Lafcadio was not just in the room, but in the building. Without any signs of illness, in his late 50’s, Lafcadio went to bed and passed in his sleep. It is a complete shock to his family, his work-mates, and everyone who knew him. There is a Facebook page in memory of Lafcadio Coresi. It rapidly filled up with photos and memories from environmentalists all over the world, many inspired by him. Rest in peace friend.
THE SINGLE BIGGEST THREAT TO LIFE
At this time, the war in Ukraine continues it’s pitiless pace of destruction, both lives and property. While North Americans pull off the masks and party for the end of the pandemic, a new wave is just beginning in China. South Korea, which was so admired for it’s control of the virus in early 2020, just reported over 600,000 new cases in a single day. Virus death rates in Hong Kong are the highest in the world. This is mostly the super-transmitter variation BA2. It can reinfect people who had previous versions.
Fortunately we know a new virus in China could never spread to the rest of the world – oh wait. There are no special controls on planes coming in from Asia. Most countries, including Canada, have dropped testing requirements for entry. Global trade continues. Of course another wave will come. There are millions of people still unvaccinated, and all vaccine protection is beginning to wane. Seniors need a fourth shot. We are letting our guard down, even as the enemy approaches.
As you heard in this program, and almost every week on Radio Ecoshock, the grand long-term threat, and immediate source of more crisis, is climate change. Through war, economic collapse, starvation, or plagues, we just keep burning fossil fuels and tearing down nature.
We could still put out the fossil fire, before it consumes our only home. Let’s do that. Stop exploring for more oil and gas. Stop financing coal, and close that industry down. Slash you own energy use and expectations. Demand action from governments at ever level. Join and support climate action groups. Show your strength. Believe that we can.
If you can help fund this free-to-all radio broadcast, this would be a good time. Our 105 radio stations do not pay for this program. I put it out there free. So you the listener (and patient blog reader it seems) are all the support I have. Fortunately, costs and small and I live cheaply. But it does need your help, especially in these dark days. Some subscribers are struggling. There are so many other worries. But we can’t let this drop. Please help Radio Ecoshock keep pumping key science and news out there. It’s fast and easy here.
I’m Alex Smith. A real thank you for listening, and caring about this world.
In the show I play a brief clip from 1958 Frank Capra film “Unchained Goddess” on global warming. They totally nailed global warming and rising seas in 1958. Watch the original movie here.