California, Climate Change, and the Calamity of Fire

Smoke rises from a fire near Butte Mountain Road, Thursday Sept. 10, 2015, near Jackson, Calif. Lions, tigers and other cats big and small are being evacuated as California's biggest wildfire continues to spread, possibly threatening the park where they live, officials said Thursday. (Andrew Seng/The Sacramento Bee via AP) MAGS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT (KCRA3, KXTV10, KOVR13, KUVS19, KMAZ31, KTXL40); MANDATORY CREDIT

The fires have ravaged California for months now. Some are so monstrous they’ve acquired names: Valley Fire, Butte Fire, Rough Fire.

The raging flames that have scorched northern California this past summer are approaching Biblical proportion. About 700,000 acres are now barren and black. Over 20,000 people have been evacuated. Approximately 15,000 firefighters have been sent, in packs, to fight the blazes. In the month of July alone, California spent 23 million dollars fighting the wildfires.

middletown

Charred remains of Middletown, California, after the Valley Fire

An entire town, Middletown, has been destroyed. The magnificent, ancient sequoias are now being threatened. And fire officials say the worst may yet arrive.

Why does California (and to a lesser degree the other 49 states) seem to be increasingly plagued by fire?

From April through October, California experiences a hot dry climate. The state is also graced with large areas of wilderness, national forests, and national parks, which contain large quantities of timber and brush.

But unlike similar dry, timber-laden states, California also deals with the Santa Anna and Diablo winds that gust off the Pacific Ocean. This combination of dry climate, wind, and extensive flora creates an ideal tinderbox condition.

Since 1932, scientists have been monitoring wildfires in California. Of the 20 largest fires, 14 have occurred in the last 20 years. The Valley Fire, which has so far killed five people and injured four firefighters, could possibly be the worst fire ever – once the smoke finally clears.

sequoia

Firefighters trying to protect giant sequoias

According to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, 95 percent of California’s fires are caused by man. Power tools, campfires, cigarette butts, downed power lines, arson, and even gunfire are chief culprits, particularly in more populous southern California. As commercial and residential development pushes more people closer to fire-prone timberlands, wildfire activity will only increase.

The California fires and other U.S. blazes are now on track to make 2015 the worst year for fires in the nation’s history. According to International Business Times, “In the Western U.S., the average annual temperature has risen 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, leading soil and plant moisture to evaporate, rainfall to diminish and snowpack to rapidly melt — all factors that increase the risks of longer, stronger wildfires.” fire graphsCalifornia is now in its fourth year of drought, which has dramatically exacerbated the fire quotient.

And there’s a financial cost. According to the research firm Headwaters Economics in a 2013 report, “Federal wildfire protection and suppression efforts now average more than $3 billion a year, compared to less than $1 billion in the 1990s.”

As temperatures continue to rise, some scientists predict that wildfire activity could actually double in the next 35 years.

And as California Governor Jerry Brown said on Monday, watching helplessly as his state toasted like a giant marshmallow: “This is the future… Climate change is not going to go away.”

fire2

Sources:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/post-apocalyptic-level-destruction-caused-california-fires/story?id=33747518

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34238228

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/16/us/the-california-wildfires-an-escalating-crisis.html?_r=0

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140517-san-marcos-wildfires-california-weather/

http://www.ibtimes.com/california-wildfires-2015-how-climate-change-risky-development-are-raising-costs-us-2098496

drought map

Six Degrees of Hypothermia

blizzard

On December 23, 2010, a 7-year-old girl fell into a lake outside Orest, Sweden.  No one knows what the temperature of the lake was.  But it was very, very cold.  When pulled from the lake, the girl had a body temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Much of the United States is currently in the throes of a winter deep freeze, with wind chills reaching at least 30 degrees below zero in many highly populated  areas of the Midwest.  Hopefully there will be few if any fatalities.  But this is serious and dangerous weather.

***

I am just going outside, and may be some time (Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates , of Robert Falcon Scott‘s South Pole expeditionary force, as he walked into a blizzard to his death on March 16, 1912)

Each person’s body insulates itself differently.  Fatty tissue, muscle, age, and internal organ health influence how soon the body’s heart and brain will shut down from what’s known as “hypothermia.”  Mental condition also plays a part.  Buddhist monks in Tibet use meditation to raise the temperature of their extremities as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  But every body goes through specific stages of progression to and during hypothermia, or “subnormal body temperature,” before death occurs.

scott

Doomed 1912 Scott Expedition to South Pole (Oates is back left, Scott is back center)

100.8 degrees:  When one feels cold, body exertion is the logical way to heat up.  One can raise one’s core temperature to 100.8 degrees through exercise.  When I go for a run in the winter, I like to feel a little chill at the start, since I know I’ll be snug and warm after about 5 minutes of running.

98.6 degrees:  But exercise also dilates the capillaries, which transport this excess heat to the skin, then to be expelled from the body.  This is exacerbated by wet clothing.  Body temperature then drops back to the normal 98.6… then lower.

95 degrees:  At 97 degrees, neck and shoulder muscles constrict in what’s known as “pre-shivering muscle tone.”  The brain’s hypothalamus has been signaled to constrict all surface capillaries, sending warm blood to the internal organs but pulling heat away from hands and feet.  At 95 degrees, the muscles contract, causing the body to shake uncontrollably in an effort to preserve warmth.  This is considered mild hypothermia.  Many of us have experienced this state at one time or another.

93 degrees:  Now it gets serious.  Core body heat declines rapidly, with the head alone releasing 50 percent of the heat.  Amnesia sets in, because for every one-degree drop in body temperature, cerebral metabolic rate also drops by 3 to 5 percent.

90 degrees:  Severe hypothermia.  At this point a victim falls into a drug-like stupor.  Below 90, the shivering stops, because the body’s automatic heat-generation system gives up.

86 degrees:  The heart becomes arrhythmic and pumps less than two-thirds the normal concentration of blood.  Due to the brain’s continued metabolic apathy, hallucinations occur.

Below 85 degrees:  At this most extreme stage of hypothermia, people have been known to rouse from their stupor and tear off their clothes due to feelings of intense heat.  The phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.”  Scientists believe this may be the result of constricted blood vessels near the skin that suddenly becoming dilated, causing a severe burning sensation.

There is no exact temperature at which the human body “dies” from cold.  Numerous people have recovered from extreme hypothermia if rescued in time.  Extreme coldness slows the brain’s metabolism, so it needs much less oxygen to survive than when warm.  In many cases, the only long-term consequence of extreme hypothermia is frostbite (the freezing and destruction of tissue), which might, at most, require amputation of fingers or toes.  But this assumes the victim receives immediate medical treatment.

The little Swedish girl miraculously survived.  She was pulled from the brink of death by a combination of slow heating and a heart-and-lung machine.  Her doctor also attributed her survival to her young and developing brain.  Her body temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit was the lowest ever recorded for a living human being.

NOTE:  Much of the information here is derived from the chapter “As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow: Hypothermia” from the book LAST BREATH: THE LIMITS OF ADVENTURE by author and Outside Magazine correspondent Peter Stark.

hiker