Fires and other extreme weather threats to rise

Media Releases

Environment Colorado

Denver — As the Fourmile Canyon fire rages, leading climate experts and local officials joined Environment Colorado to release a new report documenting how global warming could lead to extreme weather events becoming more common in the future.

“The Fourmile Canyon fire is just one example of how extreme weather can cause devastating problems for Colorado residents,” said Tamra Wroblesky, federal field associate for Environment Colorado. “Given that unchecked global warming will likely fuel more frequent and more severe weather, it is imperative to reduce global warming pollution now.”

The new report, entitled Global Warming and Extreme Weather: The Science, the Forecast, and the Impacts on America, details the latest science linking global warming to hurricanes, coastal storms, extreme precipitation, wildfires and heat waves.  The report also summarized some of the most damaging recent weather events nationally, including 2010’s Southeast Winter Storm and the U.S. Heat Wave.

“Owing to the large natural variability and weather, climate change is mainly perceived through changes in the extremes when global warming and natural variability come together to break records and go outside of previous bounds,” said Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

“In Colorado, the greatest risks likely come from changes in water and snow pack: a shorter snow season and a longer summer with less of nature’s storage of water in snow, increasing risk of summer drought, heat waves and wild fires,” continued Trenberth.

While it is difficult to connect climate change as a factor to any particular extreme weather event, Environment Colorado pointed to the current Boulder County Fourmile Canyon fire which has burned over 7,000 acres and 169 structures, along with the 2009 Boulder County Olde Stage Fire which burned over 3,000 acres during the winter, as examples of severe damage that extreme weather can cause.

Mayor Susan Osborne remarked on the Fourmile fire that began yesterday west of Boulder, commenting the unusually dry conditions this month were partially responsible for the damage of the blaze.

“In light of the Fourmile fire, this report could not be timelier,” said Boulder Mayor Susan Osborne. “Global warming may not be the cause of the fire, but if we do not act soon we are likely to see more fires throughout Colorado.”

“We must confront global warming now if we are to protect our citizens and prevent more frequent and more damaging weather events from occurring,” continued Mayor Osborne.

Climate expert Stephen Saunders, President of Rocky Mountain Climate Organization concurred that we must take action on global warming to reduce the risk of increased extreme weather events.

“Here in the West,” said Stephen Saunders, “a disrupted climate will hit us with more drought, more heat waves, and more wildfires. But if we reduce heat-trapping pollutants, we can keep these extremes from getting too much out of control.”

The Environment Colorado report was released as Congress considers several bills to let polluters off the hook by blocking global warming pollution standards for some of the largest pollution sources.  At the same time, the Obama administration is poised to advance new fuel economy and global warming pollution standards for cars and trucks—standards that would achieve substantial reductions in global warming pollution while also cutting oil use and saving consumers money at the gas pump.  Environment Colorado urged the Obama administration to enact standards for cars and trucks that will ensure the average new car can travel 60 miles on a gallon of gas by 2025.

“With rising gas prices and dependence on oil, it is time to save Coloradans money and make our cars and trucks go farther on a gallon of gas. Simultaneously, by cutting global warming pollution, we decrease future threats of severe weather,” said Wroblesky.  “We applauded the Obama administration for the clean car standards they issued earlier this year, and we hope the President seizes the opportunity to realize even greater benefits with this next round of standards.”

Wroblesky noted that while no single event can be entirely attributed to global warming, a warming climate is increasing the odds of more extreme weather.  Each weather event arises from a combination of short-term weather patterns and long-term climatic trends, and global warming “loads the dice” for severe weather.

“Today’s report highlights what is at stake and the severity of wildfires to come if we continue to stand idle. We must tackle global warming now,” said Wroblesky.

Key findings from the Environment Colorado report include:

  • Scientists predict that a warmer climate could lead to a 54 percent increase in the average area burned by wildfires in the western U.S. annually, with the greatest increases in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest.  In 2008, California spent $200 million in a single month fighting a series of wildfires in the northern part of the state.
  • Global warming is projected to bring more frequent heavy downpours and snowfalls, since warmer air can hold more water vapor.  Already, the number of heavy precipitation events in the United States increased 24 percent between 1948 and 2006, helping to make flooding the most common weather-related disaster in the U.S.  Recent years have seen a string of incredibly destructive floods and snowstorms, including the 2008 Midwest flood that caused $8 to $10 billion in damage and 2010’s “Snowmaggedon” that cost the East Coast more than $2 billion.
  • Heat waves are projected to be more frequent, more intense, and last longer due to global warming.  Heat waves are among the most lethal of extreme weather events, as illustrated by a 2006 heat wave that affected the entire contiguous United States and was blamed for at least 147 deaths in California and another 140 deaths in New York City.