What do Droughts and Wildfires Say About Climate Change?

Drought in Northwest U.S. raises questions of climate change's impact

The Big Lost Fire in northern Idaho near the Washington State border came within a mile of Dallas Sexton’s farm before the wind changed and blew it away from his house instead.

Sexton was saved from fire damage, but smoke and heat wreaked havoc on his small farm, where he raises chickens and ducks and grows blueberries and hay.

“Between the smoke and the hot weather, egg production has gone down by a third,” he said. But people growing lentils and peas in the area have it worse. Everything is dry, which makes it difficult to keep things growing.

All he could do was make sure his crops had enough water during this an unusually dry year – the driest spring in over 100 years, according to the LA Times.

“Mother Nature’s in charge,” he explained.

It’s too early for experts to quantify the total impact this year’s drought and drought-fueled wildfires had on agriculture in the Northwest. But projecting into the mid-century, a warmer climate and erratic weather events will “challenge agriculture,” said Chad Kruger, director of the Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources.

A report by a U.S.-UK taskforce predicts climate change will lead to more frequent extreme weather events that “shock” the global food system. A shock refers to an event that reduces yields of crops like wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans enough to significantly raise prices. These events could occur every 30 years or more by 2040, according to the report. At this point, they happen about once a century.

Kruger said addressing the effects of climate change is a complex task where regional differences matter. He believes predicting water levels will be the biggest challenge facing Washington in the coming years.

The state has a $51 billion food and agriculture industry, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture. It produces the most apples, hops, sweet cherries, and red raspberries in the nation, among other crops. Nearby states are similarly affluent in agriculture.

This year, those states – Washington, northern Idaho, Oregon, and northern California – experienced record-setting warm temperatures from January through July, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Combined with below average precipitation, the conditions in the region contributed to one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. As of Sept. 8, more than 44,000 fires have burned more than 8.4 million acres in the U.S. 

Wildfires are a highly visible effect of warm and dry conditions. Most are ignited by lightning during storms. Strikes are more likely to start a fire during dry conditions – and those fires are more intense and severe, Kruger said. They consume forests and grasslands, including those used for grazing cattle. 

“Fire on rangeland is pretty serious,” he said. Farmers lose forage for their animals and, often, they lose infrastructure that’s costly to replace.

Some cattle were killed in fires this year, according to Civil Eats. The other agricultural casualties were fruit packing warehouses. Smoke and heat disrupted work across the state.

Coming up with solutions

While forecasters can use computer modeling to predict the impact of different warming scenarios, climate change will impact regions differently. In Washington State, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could actually lead to higher yields in some of the state’s most prevalent crops, including wheat, potatoes, and apples because it fertilizes soil. However, excess CO2 isn’t so good for corn – a cash crop in Midwestern states.

Water poses a problem, though.

“Projecting precipitation is really hard to do,” Kruger said. “We’ll be better off in the Northwest … if water’s not a limiting factor.”

The last two years provided two extreme examples – one with plenty of water and one without.

Last year, Washington had a normal supply of water from precipitation and snowmelt. Temperatures were 3 or 4 degrees above average and extended the growing season about seven weeks, Kruger said.

“We blew by the apple yield records for the state,” he said.

But 2015 has been entirely different. This year, the warming season started in the winter and affected snowpack, which led to lower surface water levels once the growing season started.

“We didn’t have the water to support growing conditions,” Kruger explained. “Early returns are looking pretty bad.”

This year paints a picture of what climate scientists expect will be the norm by mid-century.

Kruger says that farmers in Washington need better information to help them make decisions as the season progresses. This year, water projections looked normal at the start of the season, so producers didn’t change their approach. Later, forecasters realized the water supply wouldn’t last.

That had serious impacts, according to Kruger. “They didn’t have to be this bad.”

If he can secure funding, Kruger and his colleagues will spend the next few months figuring out what really happened this year. 

With the help of reports detailing the impact of climate change on agriculture, he thinks experts will develop new methods and technology that will help farmers adapt. Kruger says such reports are more instructive than predictive.

The challenge is figuring out the trajectory warming trends will take because improving forecasting for farmers, investing in research and development, and updating policy and management practices will take years. Will the climate change by 3 or 4 degrees over the next three decades? Or 8 to 10 degrees?

Right now, scientists in Washington are imagining the middle of those two extremes, giving them time to come up with solutions, like faster responses to wildfire starts.

“We’re going to be a lot better at doing this,” Kruger said. “By mid-century, a lot of these problems can probably be managed.”

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Wildfire photo from Shutterstock