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© Richard Grossman MD, 2008
Only you can prevent forest fires
Prevention and control of wildfires are big concerns as the summer progresses. For years we had thought that their increased size and numbers were caused by management practices over the past century. Strong evidence supports another theory.
Our Forest Service tried to maximize the productivity of National Forests by suppressing fire. Their theory, starting a century ago, was that saving forests from fire would make them more fruitful—more board feet of lumber could be harvested. Biologists now recognize that fire is actually beneficial to the ecology of forests. For instance, a fire in a southwestern ponderosa pine forest is usually down low and burns the undergrowth while sparing the trees themselves. Small plants that would sap the water and minerals in the soil are reduced so that he trees can grow better. Furthermore, fire creates an ideal seedbed for ponderosa seedlings by consuming dead organic matter on the soil surface.
Moreover, suppression of fire can cause problems. The underbrush and dead wood build up. When lightening does strike, there is so much fuel waiting to blaze that an inferno can result.
An article published in Science magazine reported a detailed study of wildfires in the western United States over the past 35 years. The authors compared this database with information about forestry practices and climate/precipitation. They found that large wildfire activity increased markedly starting in the 1980’s. They also found that the increase in fires correlated best with increased spring and summer temperatures and with earlier spring snowmelt.
Even if snow pack at the end of the winter were adequate, it would melt off earlier than in the past. This lack of moisture, combined with higher temperatures during spring and summer, make for a long, dry fire season.
It seems that we are seeing an effect of global climate change close to home.
Gardeners may have already noted a change. Most seed packages have information about where it is appropriate to grow the plants. For instance, La Plata County is in plant Hardiness Zone 5 or 6, determined by the lowest winter temperatures. The National Arbor Day Foundation has revised its zone map to reflect a warming of the climate from 1990 and 2006. Find more information about this, including a map showing where the zones have changed, in Wikipedia.
Another example of an effect of climate change is found in the Bay of Bengal, at the delta of the sacred Ganges River. Warming has caused a significant rise in the sea level, submerging islands there. The island of Lohachara was the first to be abandoned, leaving 10,000 landless refugees. Unfortunately, there are many more islands to follow. Two locals, Nick Manning and Tyler Quintano, documented this tragedy in their movie “Between the Tides.”
The whole country of Kiribati is threatened by flooding. Citizens of this collection of 33 low coral atolls peppered in the South Pacific are preparing abandon their homeland as it is gradually being inundated. They may be followed shortly by residents of other Pacific nations, including Tuvalu and Vanuatu. So far, no other country is willing to house these environmental refugees, who may number more than 300,000 people.
Yes, Southwest Colorado had a colder-than-usual winter last year with great snowpack. No, global climate change does not mean that all parts of the planet are getting warmer, or that there isn’t variation from year to year.
Climate change models predict an increase in average temperature and
greater variation in temperature than we are accustomed to. Models also predict more extreme weather events, such as severe hurricanes. The weight of the evidence is that our climate is changing for the worse—and we are the cause. What can we do about it?
Dr. Chris Rapley, head of the Science Museum in London, has come up with the cheapest and most obvious answer to slow global climate change. We need to improve access to contraception by education and healthcare. “I am not advocating genocide” said Rapley. He does advocate reducing the birthrate—fewer people on the planet will mean less carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere. “To achieve this goal you would only have to spend a fraction of the money that would be needed to bring about technological fixes…. However, everyone has decided, quietly, to ignore the issue.”
Everyone, that is, other than readers of the Durango Herald. Many of us have recognized that human population growth is the basis of countless problems that we face today.