Hurricanes, Wildfires…Scientists Predicted It

The East Ridge, marking the Continental Divide east of Butte, in the hazy distance last week – before it got a whole lot worse.


“Odd. No one is in denial of America’s Aug 21 total solar eclipse. Like Climate Change, methods & tools of science predict it.” Twitter feed from renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

On the day, last week, when I started writing this week’s column, our air here in Butte was officially rated as “unhealthy.” We didn’t need an official rating from scientists, however. You could see it, taste it, smell, it and make the same conclusion. The smoke is from fires that have been ravaging Montana since early July, with new ones popping up almost daily.

At the same time, Hurricane Harvey was drenching the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana with feet of rain.

While these events seem diametrically opposite, it’s pretty certain the events have a lot in common.

Of course, forest fires are not new, as are hurricanes and floods. But, as Christopher Joyce, National Public Radio’s science correspondent noted on a segment of All Things Considered last week, regarding Harvey, there have always been big storms. He went on to note that a new factor is warmer oceans, and those warmer oceans provide more energy for storms to feed off of, and the oceans, on average, are a full degree warmer than a century ago.

The Gulf of Mexico, he explained, is a full four degrees warmer than usual, and that has been causing ocean water to evaporate and rise up, and a four-degree rise produces a lot of water vapor. A somewhat unusual aspect of Harvey was that parts of the storm system stayed over the Gulf providing a pipeline to the main storm hanging over the mainland of the Gulf Coast.

As for the future, Joyce said, “If the oceans get hotter…a really big storm that might happen once every hundred years now may be happening every 50 or every 20. And that may actually be happening already, but you can’t tell where or when.”

Meanwhile, in Missoula, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior, Sonny Perdue and Ryan Zinke, along with Senator Daines and Rep. Gianforte, held a press event after getting a nickel tour of the Lolo Peak fire, proclaiming that “radical environmentalists” were to blame, presumably because of hold-ups in logging, even though the Forest Service acknowledges that logging goals have mostly been met.

No, I would submit that the real problem has been that not enough people have been paying enough attention to radical environmentalists who have been forecasting for over a century that our addiction to fossil fuels and greenhouse gases would cause climate warning and consequent climate instability.

Just as the oceans are getting warmer, so are the forests of western Montana. We had a good snow cover this past winter, and our spring and early summer precipitation was at or above average. Forecasters were predicting an average or below average fire season. Then, at the beginning of July, temperatures soared into the nineties and we were suddenly in fire season. Eastern Montana, which was already in drought mode, had the state’s biggest fire, with over 270,000 acres of rangelands reduced to ashes.

Alas, the fact of climate change and the underlying science has been politicized, with the president of the United States being the denier-in-chief, who proclaimed on the campaign trail last year that climate change was a big hoax perpetuated by China.

The president appointed to run the EPA a former Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, who recently said, “Science is not something that should be thrown about to try and dictate policy in Washington, D.C.”

A high profile vacancy in the Department of Agriculture is the head of the Office of the Chief Scientist, with the mission to insure that scientific advice provided to the Department is “held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.” The president has nominated Sam Clovis, a former college economics professor and conservative talk show host who has stated, regarding climate change, “a lot of the science is junk science.”

I’m not a scientist, but I respect science and scientists. Denying science can be hazardous to your health, home, and livelihood.

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