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Today’s newsletter is a continuation of a short three-part series on the Colorado wildfires that started with Tuesday’s deeply emotional interview with Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s Assistant State Climatologist.
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Colorado hasn’t seen a fire season this bad in a very, very, very long time.
The three largest fires in Colorado history – the Cameron Peak fire, the East Troublesome fire, and the Pine Gulch fire – have all burned this summer.
This week, the East Troublesome fire actually crossed over the continental divide through Forest Canyon Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park at an elevation of 11,320 feet – something meteorologists were speculating would be an unbelievable feat for any time of the year, let alone late October. The fire burned an area the size of Chicago in a day, at high elevation, at temperatures near freezing.
Decades of drought and beetle infestations worsened by rapidly warming temperatures have led to massive stands of dead forests across western North America – at least 100,000 square miles worth. In Colorado, more acres have burned this year than in any other *five year period* on record, combined. Fires are even slowly advancing through early winter snowstorms – with heavy snows posing new challenges for firefighting crews.
None of this is normal.
Before 2002, Colorado had never recorded a fire larger than 100,000 acres. It now has three burning simultaneously. What’s happening in Colorado isn’t a coincidence, it’s climate change.
Wildfires a thousand years in the making
Bryan Shuman is a climate scientist at the University of Wyoming. He’s spent most of the summer hunkering down due to smoke from the Mullen fire, another enormous fire about the same size as the East Troublesome fire, that has been burning on both sides of the Wyoming/Colorado state line up to just a few miles from Laramie, Wyoming, where he lives and works. The Mullen fire is still just 85% contained, and in places has continued burning through the snowpack of a major snowstorm over the past few days, creating surreal scenes.
Shuman has devoted his career to studying the long-term fire history of the region he calls home – the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. What he’s found has terrifying implications for the near future.
“If you look over the historic record, there really is not anything comparable in the last 100 years to what we've just seen now,” says Shuman. In fact, the current surge of fire “really doesn't have much precedent in historic record. And basically from our paleo records, you more or less have to go back 1,000 years to see anything comparable.”
Last week, Shuman was personal witness to the first few hours of yet another fire, the Cal-West fire, when he was traveling to Boulder, Colorado last weekend for his son’s youth soccer game.
Here’s how he describes it:
Shuman and his research team study sedimentary records of charcoal to look at the frequency of fires in the subalpine forest systems in the Rocky Mountains. That involves taking samples of mud in mountain lakes, and then carbon-dating it, to get a better estimate of how much forest systems were burning and how they recovered from big fires.
About 1,000 years ago, Shuman and his team found that much of Northern Colorado burned, as it’s doing now, under temperatures roughly comparable to the present day. They also found that those fires were transformative, and left a permanent mark on fragile high altitude ecosystems.
Now, Shuman is worried that rapid warming related to climate change is about to have a similarly transformative impact on the forests in Colorado.
In short, Colorado is currently experiencing the worst wildfire conditions in millennia.
“I don't think I've been an alarmist enough about climate change.”
- Bryan Shuman
Being a climate scientist is one thing, but Shuman is also a father, and doing this work is clearly taking an emotional toll on him. Seeing his paleoclimate findings match up with other scientists’ climate predictions and the view from his backyard is shocking. “It's just awful to watch it really happen,” he told me. “It's just devastating.”