Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Weather and Climate

The sky is brown today.  The light coming in through the windows is orange.  I'm staying in the house because the smoke particles in the air are bad for my asthma.  Forty or so miles north of here, the Napa Valley is burning.  Twenty or so miles west of the Napa Valley, Santa Rosa is burning, along with a big chunk of Sonoma County.  There are 22 fires in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Yuba, Solano, and Nevada counties.  The burned area totals at least 170,000 acres; 21 people are identified dead and 670 reported missing; up to 3,000 homes and businesses have burned; and the fires are still not under control.  Much of the burn area has no electricity, no phone service, and no Internet.

How did this happen?  Even for California's fire season (in other words, October), this is bad.

I've seen weather reports which say there is a large ridge of high pressure sitting on the Great Basin (that is, Nevada).  The California coast is lower pressure than that, therefore wind is blowing from the Sierras across the Central Valley to the coast.  The wind was down yesterday, but Sunday night it was blowing across the Napa and Sonoma valleys at 40 - 75 miles per hour.  75 mile per hour winds make a hurricane.  40 mile per hour winds are a "fresh gale" (according to the Hurricane Watch Net).  We call the autumn winds "Diablo winds" for a reason.  At those wind speeds, a grass fire is unstoppable, because the embers will blow ahead of attempts to stop the burn; and when the embers ignite human structures, the situation is worse, because structures burn for much longer than grass and spit out even more embers for the winds to blow forward to start more fires.

This is the second time in my life I've seen an unstoppable fire in urban areas; the first time was 1991, when a 65 mile per hour wind drove flames across the Oakland hills (where I live) and didn't stop till evening.  The current fires have now been burning for 3 days - and if the winds pick back up again tonight, they will keep burning, presumably until it rains.

There is still a small, annoying group of idiots (many of whom, unfortunately, work for the Federal government) who insist that "climate change isn't real."  The president claims it's a "Chinese hoax."  Well, "climate" is weather over a long period.  The human race's addiction to burning fossil fuels for power has changed the weather over the last couple of hundred years, slowly enough that we could pretend nothing had changed.  But it has.  This year we've seen multiple examples that changes to the system temperature are changing the system behavior - we saw 4 of the worst hurricanes in years, in about 3 months, and now we're seeing these firestorms, also with the worst winds we've seen in years.  Houston, Puerto Rico, and now Napa and Sonoma - all devastated in very short periods by weather we've never seen before.

This isn't the climate I thought I grew up in.  This new climate is a whole lot less hospitable to the human race.  Looking at the disasters overall, it's clear to me that we really can't keep building our electrical grid using wires hanging on tall poles - because all these high winds flattened the electrical grid, in Puerto Rico's case, completely.  If we replace the grids with anything but an underground wire system, we are crazy.  And we'll have to look more closely at flood patterns and wildland fuels before we decide where to build houses.  We may no longer be able, as a species, to afford those nice suburban houses near the forest.

I've heard people complain that climate change will "destroy the planet."  No, it won't.  The planet, over the millennia, has survived much worse climate changes.  But this climate change may well make the planet a much less comfortable place for the human race to live.  If we're lucky, it'll just be uncomfortable.

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