Idaho: safe from Sea Level Rise but not from Drought and Fire

Crown fire in mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016
Crown fire in a mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016. Photo by Karl Greer, U.S. Forest Service

Idaho, an inland State, most of which lies above 2,000 feet in elevation, is safe from Sea Level Rise, but not from the warming atmosphere that’s causing it. Average summer temperature across the Pacific Northwest are predicted to rise by several degrees in the coming years. That will translate into serious trouble for the regions forests.  The Seattle Times of Sept. 11, 2017, quotes Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington: “We expect to see more fires and bigger fires. People are just beginning to wake up to this, but public lands managers do think about this and the potential risks.”

The 2018 fire season validated that prediction. The  image below shows a satellite snapshot (as an overlay on a map of the U.S.) of dense smoke across the West Coast on the morning of August 20, 2018.  The smoke cover extends north into Canada, south to Texas, and east to the Great Lakes. Idaho is hidden.

Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018
Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018. Image: NOAA

According to the U.S. Forest Service budget report for 2015, climate change has extended the wildfire season by an average of 78 days per year since 1970. Funding for fire fighting has remained flat for years, and rising costs have repeatedly broken the Service’s annual budget. Last year, Congress passed a ‘fire funding fix’. The bill, which will become effective in 2020, provides $2.25 billion to cover fire fighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. In addition, the bill contained half a billion in emergency fire fighting funds for 2018.

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho, was the principal backer of the ‘fire funding fix’. Speaking about the new funding regime at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, on May 3, 2018, he had this to say:

“It’s taken us . . . thirty years to get here in terms of what was not the adequate management we needed to be putting into place on the ground. We are not going to solve it all in one fire season. So it’s true, we’re still going to be dealing with some of the things that have been building up over time and are giving us the problems that we have now. That being said, we are now going to start managing properly, and, as Vickie Christiansen, the Acting Chief of the [U.S.] Forest Service said, we are now going to move toward that point — which will take us some years to achieve — but to that point where fire is the servant not the manager of our forests.”

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho
Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho. Image: McClatchy Videos

Senator Crapo doesn’t believe (or refuses to admit) that Global Warming is real, or that it’s an unfolding catastrophe caused by the burning of fossil fuels. That’s why he doesn’t mention the impact of climate change. As far as Crapo is concerned, the increasing number of wildfire disasters are due to the cumulative effect over thirty years of improper forest management practices, and that the problems will be solved because now, the Forest Service will have enough money to do a better job. You’ll recall how the Service has already received tips from President Trump on ways to improve their forest management practices.

Will increased funding enable the Forest Service to put a stop to the uncontrollable burning up of the western forests? It can help. It can delay. It can mitigate. But It can’t succeed until the root cause of the problem — the increasing temperature of our planet’s atmosphere — is brought under control.

On June 3, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. A month earlier, 22 Republican Senators jointly sent a letter to the President urging him to dump the deal. Mike Crapo and his fellow Idaho Senator, Jim Risch, were among the signatories. According to The Guardian of June I, 2017, the 22 Senators had collectively received $10.7 million in campaign donations from fossil fuel industries, over the previous three election cycles (2012, 2014, 2016). Mike Crapo’s share was $110,250. Jim Risch received $123,850.

America currently remains a party to the Paris Accord. Three years must elapse before its withdrawal becomes official. Is there any possibility that Idaho will support efforts to reverse President Trump’s decision to withdraw? Considering Idaho’s current standing as a solid red State, and the apparent fealty of its Republican politicians to the fossil fuel industry, that seems unlikely. Every stick of Idaho’s forests will burn before some minds are changed.

There is, however, an indication that light has begun to penetrate Idaho’s Republican darkness.  Brad Little, a Republican, was sworn in as Idaho’s 33rd Governor on January 4th. According to High Country News, the Governor, while addressing the Idaho Environmental Forum on January 16th, told the crowd that “Climate Change is real.” His statement reportedly reduced the crowd to stunned silence. Responding to questions later, he said, “Climate is changing, there’s no question about it. We’ve just gotta figure out how to cope with it and we gotta slow it down. Now, reversing it is going to be a big darn job.” (quote from Idaho Press)

Map of the United States showing location of Idaho
The red State of Idaho. Image: Wikipedia

The 1,000-year Tennessee flood of 2010 — what are the odds?

It started raining on Saturday, May 1, 2010. By the time the rain stopped 36 hours later, large areas of middle and western Tennessee were under water. Fiftytwo of the state’s nintyfive counties would later qualify for disaster assistance. The amount of water that bucketed down that weekend was epic. The meteorologists called it ‘a thousand-year flood.’ What’s remarkable about the weather system that caused so much damage is that it showed up unannounced. No named storm was involved.

Map of Tennessee showing rainfall distribution May 1 & 2, 2010

The rains that inundated Houston, Texas, in 2017, were carried in from the Gulf by hurricane Harvey. The rains that dumped on the Carolinas in 2018, were transported from the Atlantic by hurricane Florence. People knew those tropical storms were coming, days in advance. We could watch the approaching cyclones on our TV screens. The deluge that swamped Tennessee in 2010 arrived without any warning at all. Here’s what the Memphis Office of the National Weather Service had to say:

“A significant weather system brought very heavy rain and severe thunderstorms from Saturday, May 1 through Sunday morning, May 2. A stalled frontal boundary coupled with very moist air streaming northward from the Gulf set the stage for repeated rounds of heavy rainfall. Many locations along the I-40 corridor across western and middle Tennessee reported in excess of 10 to 15 inches, with some locations receiving up to 20 inches according to Doppler radar estimates.”

It was an ordinary weather system — except for the “very moist air.” Apparently that’s what made the difference between a typical Tennessee rain storm and a thousand-year flood.  What is a thousand-year flood, anyway? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (climate.gov) contains an engaging article titled, “How can we call something a thousand-year storm if we don’t have a thousand years of climate observation?”  Here’s my interpretation of the statistics it covers:

Records gathered over the past 100+ years showing the correlation between rainfall amount and flooding are available for most parts of the country. Flood predictions are derived from the statistical analysis of these records. The term ‘thousand-year flood’ means that the chance for a flood of a certain magnitude to occur at a particular place, in any given year, is one in a thousand or 0.1%. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year (2019) or in any following year, is one in a thousand.

But wait a minute. If the meteorologists are doing their job, they are constantly updating the available records with the most recent data. And if (as news reports from around the world suggest) the existing records are being broken with increasing frequency, statistical predictions will eventually reflect that trend. Floods that were once labeled 1,000-year floods, may now more properly by labeled 500-year or 100-year floods. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year, could be one in a hundred rather than one in a thousand.

How should politicians, concerned about the safety of the people they represent, respond to an increasingly dangerous climate? Since the problem is global, the response must be global. Hence The Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the international effort to halt the rise in temperature of the world’s atmosphere and thereby limit its destabilizing effect on climate.

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a coalition of 16 (and counting) U.S. States committed to upholding the objectives of the Paris Agreement. What are the chances that the State of Tennessee will join the Climate Alliance? Considering Tennessee’s current political leadership, about one in a million. The following YouTube video, published December 2009, records the position of GOP House Rep. Marsha Blackburn, on the question of Climate Change — she says: it’s cyclical; the science is not settled; humans are not responsible. Blackburn is now a U.S. Senator representing Tennessee.