Climatic changes are triggering bigger fires and longer fires seasons like this year when 1.7 million acres burned in Idaho.
That's not surprising to University of Idaho fire scientists. Decades of fire suppression have contributed to the size of fires but the trend, especially since 1980 can be attributed to climate change said Kerry Kemp, a University of Idaho fire ecologist.
"We can explain 50 to 80 percent of the annual area burned by climate alone," Kemp told scientists from federal agencies and interest groups Thursday in Boise.
By the middle of this century the median area burned will increase five times not taking into account what actions are taken to limits it, Kemp said. This year fires while large were hemmed in by the many fires that have burned across the state since the late 1980s.
"At ome point we're going to run out of thins to burn," Kemp said.
With more fires comes cascading ecological effects that reach right into the front door of Treasure Valley residents. From 1992 to 2003, 45 percent of the Middle Fork of the Boise River watershed burned increasing runoff by five percent or 50,000 acre feet annually says Forest Service hydrologist Charles Luce.
The scientists have been talking amongst themselves about these climatic changes but managers of federal lands, rivers and wildlife as well as the public have had a hard time keeping up. That's because so much data has been generated in the last decade, said Jerod Blades, a Uof I social scientist.
“That integration of that into management has been rather slow,” he said.
Blades and a team of University of Idaho scientists, funded by the National Science Foundation are holding a series of workshops across the Northern Rockies region to help expand the conversation. They were in Boise Thursday at the Foothills Environmental Education Center.
Getting the science into the hands of the people who are making decisions now can help them and the public begin to adapt to the rapidly accelerating changes. Small group meetings that allow people to share their own experiences also is helping the scientific community to learn to communicate better, said Troy Hall, a University of Idaho social science professor.
Randy Hayman, a planner on the Boise National Forest presented to the Idaho Roadless Commission this week a proposal to replant an area that burned north of Warm Lake in 2007 and has not grown back. The trees that were burned in the area, mostly Douglas fir, germinated during a period when the climate was wetter and cooler.
He’s seen changes in the structure of the forest that his education and experience don’t explain. So he talked to the University of Idaho’s Penny Morgan, a fire ecologist working with the climate team, about what trees to plant anticipating a drier, warmer future.
The suitable habitat for ponderosa pine and Douglas fir may move up to higher elevations, Ecologist Kerry Kemp said. But more projects like Hayman’s may become necessary because the seed sources may not be there.
This year hundreds of thousands of acres of the Boise watershed burned and the Forest Service’s Luce expects runoff from the watershed to rise even more. But even as the fires increase the runoff, the climatic change has reduced the runoff in the Boise watershed by 250,000 acre-feet annually since 1950, just below the capacity of Lucky Peak, Luce said.
Along with these measurable change has come increasing variability in the timing of precipitation, extreme events like floods and droughts that have raised the uncertainty for managers, said Zion Klos, a U of I hydrologist.
Klos gave a basic presentation on the cause of global warming, that includes the basics everyone at the workshop knew. Levels of carbon dioxide and other gases released by the burning of fossil fuels are at levels unseen in human history.
These gases trap more heat below the atmosphere, as the sun’s radiation is captured by the earth and sea, the concept known as the Greenhouse effect. It’s not all bad, Klos said.
“We need it to be able to live on earth,” he said.
At 391 parts per million carbon dioxide is at levels higher than anytime in the last 140,000 years. This has led to rapid warming -- about two degrees in the Pacific Northwest since early in the 20th Century.
Yet the latest poll by the Rasmussen Report shows that while 68 percent of likely voters now believe in climate change, a record, only 41 percent think it is because of human activity.
The future conditions depend on how much we reduce greenhouse gases and stabilize the population. The uncertainty of the effects in the future keeps society from acting today, Klos said.
Klos compared it to a doctor telling a patient you have to reduce your cholesterol and exercise more.
“Would anybody tell their doctor if you can’t tell me precisely when I am going to have a heart attack why should I change my lifestyle?” he said.
But Klos was preaching to the choir. Forest Service entomologist Dwight Scarbrough said outreach only goes so far.
“It’s a discussion we’ve been having for quite a long time but some people choose not to participate,” he said.