9 Droughts Dwarfed Dust Bowl in the Past 500 Years
Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire during sunse
June 27, 2012 --
A wildfire in Colorado Springs has forced the evacuation of 32,000 people from their homes. The cause of the Waldo Canyon Fire, which broke out on Saturday June 23 is still under investigation. As of today the fire has doubled in size to 15,517 acres as 764 personnel fight the flames under rapidly spreading, extreme fire conditions. Shifting winds of 65 mph on Tuesday hampered firefighting efforts and full containment is not expected until July 16. Across the country, 657,614 acres are currently burning under the graze of 37 active large fires, including those set intentionally by forest services to manage undergrowth. So far this year, more than 1.5 million acres have been scorched by the more than 26,000 fires nation-wide. But to put that number in perspective, last year at this time more than 35,000 fires had burned more than 4.6 million across the country, according to the National Fire Information Center. Fire conditions are expected to continue into the summer this season and homeowners in fire-prone areas should have emergency evacuation plans in place. Yesterday, 11 new large fires were reported and several communities in Utah and Montana also had to evacuate. The states currently reporting large fires are: Alaska (3), Alabama (2), Arkansas (1), Arizona (1), California (1), Colorado (7), Montana (7), Nevada (2), New Mexico (3), North Carolina (1), South Dakota (1), Tennessee (1), Utah (3), and Wyoming (4).
Gene Blevins, Corbis
An air tanker on June 16 makes a drop on a 500-plus acre brush fire in Los Padres National Forest, Calif. On June 7, the U.S. Forest Service added four more planes to its firefighting fleet bringing the total number up to 13. Earlier in June, one P-2V crashed while firefighting over mountainous Utah-Nevada border, while another made an emergency landing with one landing gear still retracted. You can watch the video of the amazing job the pilots did during the emergency landing here:
DNews Nugget: More Air Tankers to Fight Fires
Gene Blevins, Corbis
Angeles National Forest firefighters make their way into the 500-plus acre brush fire in Los Padres National Forest, Calif., on June 16.
ANALYSIS: How to Fight a Wildfire
Gene Blevins, Corbis
A forest trees explodes into a huge fireball brush fire in Los Padres National Forest, Calif.
The High Park Fire, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of Fort Collins, Colorado, was discovered just before 6:00 a.m. on June 9, 2012. Started by a lightning strike, the fire quickly grew, fueled by high winds and dry vegetation.
Marc Piscotty, Getty Images
A Sikorsky S-64 Aircrane firefighting helicopter drops water on a hotspot burning close to homes near Horsetooth Reservoir on June 11, 2012, near Laporte, Colo. The High Park Fire in Larimer County continues to burn, having scorched 87,284 acres. Containment as of June 27, was at 65 percent with expectations for reaching full containment by July 30.
NEWS: Firefighters Start to Contain Colorado Inferno
Jesse Allen using data obtained from the Land
Nearly half of the U.S. Forest Services' airborne fire suppression fleet are fighting flames now burning in Colorado. “Current conditions are comparable to 2002 fire season, which was the worst in Colorado history. Fires haven’t burned as many acres at this point, but the drought conditions and fuel conditions are right up there with the 2002 season, if not worse,” reported Tim Mathewson, a fire meteorologist with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.
ANALYSIS: Worst 21st-Century Fires: Models Say Expect More
Kari Greer, US Forest Services, Corbis
New Mexico has seen the largest wildfire in state history this season with the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in Gila National Forest burning 297,845 acres since May 16, 2012 after a lightning strike ignited the flames. As of June 27, the fire was 87 percent contained, with only 10 personnel continuing to work the containment lines and put the fire to bed.
PHOTOS: After the Dust Settles
During the past 500 years, nine droughts in the American West dwarfed the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, reports a new study, while extremely wet years flooded much of the Wasach Front, the region where 80 percent of Utah’s population now lives.
The longest of the nine droughts spanned 16 years from 1703 to 1718. The most severe drought struck in 1492, the same year the Christopher Columbus invaded Hispaniola, and lasted until 1500. Seven of the 10 worst droughts occurred in the late 15th and 16th centuries, just as the Spanish conquistadors arrived.
During the most intense drought, in 1580, the Weber River in Utah dropped to only 13 percent of its normal flow. The Journal of the American Water Resources Association published the study.
The Dust Bowl forced millions of Americans to migrate from failed farms. And yet the West in the 20th century actually enjoyed the most stable climate of the past five centuries.
“We’re conservatively estimating the severity of these droughts that hit before the modern record, and we still see some that are kind of scary if they were to happen again,” said lead author environmental geographer Matthew Bekker, of Brigham Young University. “We would really have to change the way we do things here.”
Bekker and his team used tree-ring analysis, or dendrochronology, to create a climate report for for the past 576 years in Utah. Thick tree ring bands in cores drilled from Douglas firs and pinyon pines represented wet years. Thin bands resulted from droughts. The dendrochronologists used modern weather, tree ring and river-level records to calibrate their estimates of the past conditions.
Photo: Bekker and his students hike to collect tree ring samples in Utah. Credit: Brigham Young University