Climate change brings lightning-caused fires to the North Slope

Two years ago residents of Barrow, on Alaska’s North Slope, saw something they had never seen on the North Slope–lightning. Climate change is bringing lightning, and lightning-caused fires to northern Alaska in quantities never before seen in recorded history. Here is an excerpt from an article at usnews.com.

When it comes to weather, it’s hard to impress the Iñupiat people living at the northernmost tip of our nation. Frozen landscapes, cutting winds, and white-outs are normal in Barrow, Alaska, a small town on the Arctic Ocean about 1,300 miles from the North Pole. But two summers ago, even the oldest residents were startled by something new: flashes of light and powerful booms coming from the sky.

“These people had never seen a lightning storm at Barrow before,” says Gaius Shaver, an Arctic ecologist from the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Ecosystems Center in Woods Hole, Mass. “They didn’t know what to think.”

With temperatures warming an average of 3 to 5 degrees over the past half-century, the climate on the North Slope of Alaska is in transition. Warmer air means more energy is available for thunderstorms where, once, it was just too cold. And more lightning is bringing another dramatic change to the tundra: Wildfires.

“The decade of the 2000s was, by far, the biggest for fires on the North Slope in half a century,” Shaver says. Thirteen wildfires torched nearly 260,000 acres over the decade—more than all the fires recorded and area burned on the North Slope since 1950. And as global warming continues, tundra wildfires are fully expected to increase, both in frequency and acreage burned.

The implications of fire in the Arctic—what Shaver calls “a new disturbance regime”—are profound. “Fire may be the trigger that shifts the North Slope landscape into a new state,” Shaver says—one vastly different from the frozen, treeless tundra of today. And it’s one that may feedback positively to global climate change.

New red flag warning criteria in California

The National Weather Service in southern California is changing the criteria that triggers a red flag warning for fire danger. In addition to wind speed and relative humidity, the new system will take into account local geography and terrain. Weather forecast offices across the state will have different criteria. Check out the full story in the LA Times, but here is a video of an LA Times reporter explaining the new system.

Wildland fire air quality tools, and mapping shortcuts

I ran across an interesting web site the other day called Wildland Fire Air Quality Tools.  It has some very useful devices for predicting and analyzing smoke, wind patterns, and air quality.

There is no obvious branding on the site (the base web address is http://firesmoke.us), but the Contact Us page lists two US Forest Service employees, Pete Lahm and Sim Larkin. The About This Site page says:

The meteorological and air quality tools provided here are intended to support wildland fire decision making and integration of air quality assessments. This site integrates these tools with the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) in order to enable easy workflow with WFDSS. This integration is still in development and ongoing.

One of the more interesting tools on the site is one that will display a “wind rose” based on the location of your choice.  If you enter a lat/long it will access data from the nearest RAWS to draw wind roses for a one month period, one for daytime and another for night. As you may know, a wind rose shows the historic wind direction and speed. Here is an example for West Yellowstone, Montana. It shows average wind speed and direction for the month of July during the day, based on data from 2001 to 2009. About 32% of the time the wind is from the southwest and about 22% of the time it’s from the south-southwest. About 14% of the time the wind speed is 8-13 MPH from the southwest.

Wind Rose, West Yellowstone, MT

Mapping shortcuts

You will need a lat/long to use the tools above, but you’re in luck because I discovered a quick way to determine the lat/long anywhere using a new “Labs” feature in Google Maps. But first I’ll tell you about another new feature in Google Maps that will help you navigate more quickly to a specific location.

On the Google Maps page, click on “New” at the top of the page. It will then list some new optional features in “Google Maps Labs”. If you Enable “Drag ‘n’ Zoom“, you can drag your mouse cursor to draw a box, then it will zoom to that box. To use this feature, click on the new magnifying glass icon that will appear on the left side of the map page under the “+” and “-” scale bar. Each time you want to draw a box to zoom, you’ll need to click that icon again.

Then scroll down in the Labs options and Enable “LatLng Marker” (not LatLng Tooltip). Click Save Changes. This option will post a “mini marker” showing the lat/long when you right-click on the map and choose “drop LatLng Marker”.

You’re welcome.

Snowfall does not determine fire season severity in Alaska

When I am asked to predict the severity of the next wildland fire season, I usually say: “Ask me in August and I’ll have a better answer”. If the weather during the fire season is hot, dry, and windy, you will have a busy fire season. If it is not, you won’t.

That is basically what meteorologists in Alaska are saying when they are asked about this winter’s weather which produced one of the lowest snowfalls there in the last 100 years. Here is an excerpt from an article in the News Miner:

FAIRBANKS — The lack of snow this winter doesn’t mean more wildfires this summer.

Despite one of the lowest snowfalls on record in more than 100 years, weather experts say summer weather, not the winter’s snow accumulation, will dictate what kind of fire year Alaska has in 2010.

Studies by the Alaska Fire Service in Fairbanks and fire experts in Canada show there is no relation between winter snowfall and summer fire danger, she said.

“It has more to do with the weather during the fire season,” Sharon Alden, a meteorologist at the Alaska Fire Service, said. “We could have a really low snow year and a really dry spring and then it rains the rest of the summer.”

Meteorologist Mike Richmond, who specializes in fire weather at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, agreed.

“In the boreal forest of Alaska and Canada there is no relationship between winter snow pack and summer fire danger,” he said.

For example, during the winter preceding Alaska’s biggest fire season on record in 2004, when more than 6.7 million acres burned, Fairbanks received

62.2 inches of snow, which is only about 10 inches below normal.

“We had a near average snow pack and we had our worst fire season ever,” Richmond said.

The picture was much the same the following year, when approximately 4.7 million acres burned after an above-average winter snowfall of 77.4 inches.

Conversely, only 28 inches of snow fell at Fairbanks International Airport during the winter of 2006-07, the third lowest snowfall total on record since 1904, but only 550,000 acres burned in the summer of 2007.

Last winter, Fairbanks received 71.5 inches of snow and approximately 2.95 million acres burned last summer.

With only 24.8 inches of snow as of Friday, Fairbanks is on track for one of its lowest winter snow accumulations since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1904.

Up to this point, there have been only two winters — 1918-19 with 12.0 inches and 1952-53 with 22.9 inches — in which Fairbanks has recorded less snow than this year.

Fairbanks is experiencing one of its driest winters on record, Richmond said. Only 4.54 inches of precipitation has been measured at Fairbanks International Airport since the start of July.

“This is the fourth-driest period in Fairbanks recorded history from July until now,” Richmond said. “We are in a drought basically.”

But it’s a matter of how dry it is in May, June and July that dictates what kind of fire season Alaska will have.

“It’s all short-term weather process driven,” Richmond said. “If we have rains every two or three weeks or closer together, we don’t get a fire season.

“We have to have periods of three weeks or longer of dry weather for there to be a fire season (in Alaska),” he said. “When we get a dry season, that’s when we get the fires.”

Contribute weather reports to the NWS

The National Weather Service is experimenting with a system that will enable anyone with a Twitter account to submit weather reports from their cell phone or computer. The primary purpose is to collect “storm reports” or “significant weather reports”.

As long as the reports are formatted as prescribed by the NWS, the data, or the individual messages or “Tweets”, will be searchable and available to anyone who visits twitter.com or uses a 3rd party Twitter application on their computer (such as TweetDeck) or on their cell phone (such as TwitDroid, for Android-based smart phones).

To send a Twitter message or “Tweet” with a storm report or a significant weather report, it must be in this format:

#wxreport WW <your location> WW <your signifcant weather report>

The key is to use the searchable “hash tag” of “#wxreport”, then put “WW” both before and after your location, separated by a blank space. And after that goes your weather information.

The location can be an address, lat/long, airport identifier, city/state, or zip code.

If your cell phone has a GPS receiver and your 3rd party Twitter application has the ability to Geotag messages with your lat/long, then it’s even easier, but both your cell phone AND your Twitter account settings have to have geolocation enabled. Here is the format if your message is geotagged:

#wxreport <your signifcant weather report>

Anyone can go to twitter.com and search for #wxreport, even if you don’t have a twitter account.

According to the NWS:

Once an office decides that a posted report is reliable and applicable, it will be added to a Local Storm Report. LSR reports are available both via RSS feed and web pages directly from NWS web sites.

I found a web page for NWS Storm Reports, but even though there is a major winter storm affecting the central part of the United States today, the page contained no reports. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place.

More information about the system can be found HERE.