Climate Change and the West: A Picture of the Western United States in the Coming Decades

Fire rages in ArizonaOver the last several years, a picture has emerged of the American west in a climate-changed world.

Last week findings of a study by the U.S. Geological Survey show a sharp decline in the snowpack of the northern Rocky Mountains over the past 30 years. Published in the journal Science, the study says the “almost unprecedented” decline, as compared with data analyzed for snowpack conditions over the past 800 years, could have severe consequences for more than 70 million people dependent on water supply from the Columbia, Colorado, and Missouri rivers – all three of which are fed from high-mountain snowpack runoff. But this is only a part of the emerging picture of a changing west.

The mega-fire burning in Arizona, raging for more than two weeks, has now crossed into New Mexico. With over 469,000 acres consumed, the fire is now the largest on record for Arizona.

While no single fire is “caused by global warming” – such an assertion is a fundamental misunderstanding of climate change – projections call for more frequent and intense wildfires as conditions in the west become hotter and drier. Recent years have brought record years for wildfires in California and throughout the west.

The fire in Arizona (and now New Mexico) demonstrates the impact such conflagrations have on air quality. The damage caused by such intense firestorms is more than the fire itself. Beyond the short-term consequence of smoke and ash, wildfires become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in a warmer environment. A new study, published in the journal PLos ONE, shows that wildfires not only release GHG through burning through forests, but also as a result of the aftermath of the fire, where “dentrifier” bacteria can lead to increased nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from plant material. N2O is a greenhouse gas with a potency 300 times that of CO2.

But even without the raging, all-consuming firestorms, trees are dying at record numbers throughout the western United States.

Forest health

GlobalWarmingisReal has reported on several occasions on the growing and pervasive infestation of bark beetles throughout western forests of North America. Millions of acres have been lost to the infestation, impacting entire ecosystems and threatening forest health throughout the west. Warmer winters allow the beetle to survive winter and move to higher ground, where trees are defenseless to the infestation.

A picture emerges

Climate plays out in decades, centuries and patterns develop, sometimes subtly or almost imperceptibly. And sometimes not so subtly. The realization of what could be more to come frames a picture of a parched, dry, tinderbox west, with vast swaths of disease-ridden forest clinging to life.

The fire in Arizona is not global warming, nor is a dead tree or one season of runoff (unusually large this year, and contrary to the larger trend). But there is always a point where the pattern does emerge, and this is the picture of the American west in the 21st century. Ignoring it will only make it worse.

Sources and further reading:
NASA Wildfire Model
Daily Kos – Climate Change and Record Winter Wildfires
NOAA – State of the Climate
The Watchers – Wildfires burn across Northern America continent

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Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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  1. If I hear ” this event does not confirm global warming” one more time I’m going to puke. We need more definition of these events as only a moron would not realize that something huge is afoot. By the way, the dust bowl and climatic events of the early twentieth century were a result of the planetary scale “big cut” of forest, an event which deserves scientific analysis and a precursor of this much larger atmospheric carbon shock.


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