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Summer of fire and ice: business as usual?

By Peter Dykstra
CNN Executive Producer

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

image
A member of the Gabilan Conservation Corp. from Monterey, California, leaves a wall of flames behind him as he sets a backfire during the Hunter Fire near Bear Valley, California, on Tuesday, August 29  

In this story:

The summer that was

Navigating arctic ice predictions

Getting to the bottom of things, more or less

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- How did you spend your summer vacation?

In CNN's environment unit, we spent our summer watching the North Pole melt, the southern United States wither in drought and the West erupt in flames. And like much of the rest of the country and the world, we will be spending a lot more time trying to understand what it all means.

Much of what the news media report involves questions with only two possible answers: Who won the election? Who lost the ball game? Did my stock go up or down today?

  ALSO
 

Sorting out the meaning of drought, fire and disappearing ice is not that easy. Are the fires, drought and the melting Arctic ice cap signs of human impact on the climate? We do not have a certain answer, and we probably never will.

Those concerned by such phenomena argue that lack of certainty should not stop anyone from asking the question -- and pondering the consequences. This summer the signs of possible climate change, whatever the causes, were anything but subtle.

The summer that was

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Smoke billows from the Custer National Forest near Red Lodge, Montana, on Tuesday, August 29  

The summer's Western wildfires have been massive, scorching an area larger than the state of New Hampshire, if concentrated in one place. They are still burning in many areas. Nationwide, more than 75,000 fires have burned some 6.6 million acres so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

At times the burning season took on a seemingly biblical tone. Early on, fires encroached on Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first U.S. atomic bombs were developed, and Washington state's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where key components for many of those bombs were built.

In late summer even larger fires posted staggering numbers. An army of 20,000 firefighters has run up a billion-dollar tab. We have seen flames towering 400 feet in the air and spreading at freeway-traffic speeds. Several thousand homes have been gutted or damaged.

In an irony of nature, the searing heat from the fires put an electric charge in clouds that created dry lightning, in turn creating new fires. Dry lightning is responsible for between 10 and 15 percent of this year's misery, according to the interagency fire center.

image
A helicopter scouts the situation before beginning water drops during the Alder Creek fire in the Lolo National Forest near Missoula, Montana, on Monday, August 28  

It has been an above-average fire year in the South, too, from Georgia to Texas. But the crushing blow there has come from drought -- the third consecutive dry year in much of the region. Farmers in several states have suffered along with their fields and cattle.

Much of Texas saw virtually no rain throughout July and August -- a streak worse than any time during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Dallas baked in a straight month's worth of 100-degree days. In three north Texas towns, the water taps nearly dripped their last drop. Faucets ran muddy in Throckmorton as the town scraped the bottom of its reservoir. Electra and Clyde came within a month's supply of drying up.

Meteorologists link these rolling disasters to an unusually long La Niña weather system in which movements of cold water in the mid-Pacific wreak havoc with the world's weather.

La Niña tends to dry up skies over the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountains. Some scientists speculate that global warming may increase the frequency and severity of such weather phenomena as La Niña and El Niño, its twin brother usually associated with opposite weather impacts.

The current La Niña is already showing signs of dissipating, and it will fade as it has in its cycle for centuries. The rains will return to douse fires and water farms.

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Farmer Ronnie Hopper inspects his barren cotton field northeast of Petersburg, Texas, on Wednesday, August 23  

After a three-year cycle of La Niña and El Niño, meteorologists say things may begin to be more normal this winter.

Climate historians have tracked these weather extremes back as far as the 15th century. University of California-Davis researcher Terry Nathan attributes Lewis and Clark's miserably rainy 1805-06 winter on the Oregon coast, for example, to a major El Niño episode.

But things got better for Lewis and Clark, just as they will for a bone-dry Texas and a charred Montana. El Niño and La Niña can be counted on to bring their share of misery and tragedy, but eventually they will move on.

Very quietly, in a part of the world rarely visited by humans, let alone television cameras, the signs of other natural changes could herald bigger, more permanent alterations in our weather, and in our lives.

Navigating arctic ice predictions

There is virtually no dispute among scientists that the Arctic ice pack is shrinking.

A recent study showed the Arctic ice is 40 percent thinner now than in the 1950s. University of Washington researcher Drew Rothrock ran the numbers compiled by the United States and Soviet Union for submarines patrolling the Arctic during the Cold War.

Many scientists are worried this finding might signal the beginning of a cataclysmic chain of events, with weather implications reaching far beyond the Arctic.

image
High resolution radar documents ice growth during the Arctic winter in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of Alaska  

If the Arctic ice cover declines, heat-reflecting white ice would be replaced by darker, heat-absorbing water -- effectively turning up the burners on the Arctic Ocean.

Should the ice pack become open water -- a prospect some mainstream researchers say could happen by 2050 -- some scientists say it could alter the "conveyor belt" of deep ocean currents in which Arctic waters flow south in a cycle with the Gulf Stream's tropical waters.

A shift in the Gulf Stream, although a very long way from certainty, could conceivably bring a sub-Arctic climate to London and Oslo, even if the rest of the world realizes the current predictions of a warming Earth, according to researchers at Colorado University and others. The Colorado researchers contend this happened during a similar Arctic warming about 8,200 years ago.

Within the Arctic the loss of ice cover could threaten the polar bears, seals and birds dependent on it.

Open water throughout the Arctic could also bring new visitors: Arctic villages are reporting a flurry of survey trips from shipping companies. Some 500 years after John Cabot and other explorers failed to locate the fabled Northwest Passage, melting ice could allow the Northwest Passage to discover us.

Getting to the bottom of things, more or less

Are the twin terrors of La Niña and the hole at the North Pole our fault?

Several strong arguments suggest, "Yes":

      • Sea levels rose a foot in the past century, with the rate of that rise expected to accelerate, because of the shrinking Arctic ice pack.

      • The 1990s were the hottest decade since global temperature measurements began in the late 19th century.

      • Severe storms, droughts and other weather phenomena have occurred more frequently in recent years.

Some scientists say the weather changes are linked to the emissions from our tailpipes and smokestacks. Others disagree.

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To measure ice, researchers now use advanced radar that sees through the ice and tracks changes over the course of an entire winter  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a gathering of 2,500 climate scientists in 1995, was nearly unanimous in declaring that human activity was exerting a "discernible influence" on our weather, and that the impacts of that influence would get far worse.

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and other gases known to cause the Greenhouse Effect by trapping heat near the Earth's surface have risen dramatically since the dawn of the Industrial Age.

On the other hand, climate records show that Earth's temperatures have gone through dramatic escalations and declines over the ages. Scientific skeptics hold out that the melting ice and rising seas and temperatures are part of a long-term weather trend that started in the time of Christopher Columbus.

And this is where the perpetual uncertainty becomes a political issue. If global warming is man-made, the prescription for combating it is a dramatic reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

The political skeptics say we should not pursue such a costly course without absolute proof. Political advocates of action on global warming counter that if we wait for absolute proof, it will be too late to solve the problem.

Whether we can limit the damage from climate change may depend on our ability to avoid what U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called the "train wreck" of science, money and politics that marks so many environmental issues.

Either way, we may remember the summer of 2000 for fire and ice -- and a message from Mother Nature. That is, we can predict the weather as never before, and we can alter it with our actions, intentionally or otherwise. But in its impacts on our lives and economy, a once-popular bumper sticker was right: "Nature still bats last."




RELATED STORIES:
CNN.com Nature
  • Is the North Pole ice cap shrinking? -- August 24, 2000
CNN.com U.S. News
CNN.com Weather

RELATED SITES:
Arctic Council
Arctic Institute of North America
Arctic Research Consortium of the United States
National Consumer Coalition: Global Warming
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Fire-EMS Information Network
International Arctic Environmental Data Directory
National Association of State Fire Marshalls
National Environmental Trust: Global Warming
National Interagency Fire Center
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
National Weather Service
U.S. Geological Survey
  • Drought Watch
  • Water Resources of the United States

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