Patrick Bartlein, a climatologist from Oregon University, has co-authored a study
relating the effects of Climate change over the past 3,000 years on wildfires in the western
United States. Using cores of sediments extracted from the bottom of mountain lakes, the
researchers have overlaid the data with a record of past climate changes. The sediments
contain layers of charcoal which can be attributed to large fire activity in the area. This allows
the activity to be dated fairly accurately.
There was a time frame between 950 A.D. To 1250 A.D. which is called the ‘Medieval
Climate Anomaly.’ This era was recorded to be unusually warm and dry. According to
Bartlein’s teams data, this coincided with an increase in fires. From the other end of the
spectrum, the centuries from 1400 A.D. to 1700 A.D. have been labeled the ‘Little Ice Age.’
This was a time of cool and moist air moving globally. The fire activity was significantly
reduced during that time. These are just a few examples of events that have led the
climatologists to describe almost 3,000 years of these types of relations.
Given the climate information of the past century and a half, the amount of natural fire
predicted is significantly higher than the amount recorded. The author’s note that this
information only covers the wildfire activity in limited areas in the western United States,
however, global information can be extrapolated. Bartlein states that “If you just look at what
the current climate is like, the rate of biomass burning should be much higher than what
we’ve observed over the 20th century…” The west has been warming since the early 1900’s.
There are a large number of people who consider the start of significant global warming to be
the Industrial Revolution. They attribute the decrease in wildfire to a combination of cattle,
fragmentation of the landscape, and suppression by the population. The cattle graze the
landscape reducing fuel for wildfires. Urban sprawl has broken the west into smaller
contiguous areas, decreasing the risk of fires spreading.
Starting in the 1980’s, the most recent data shows that this ‘fire deficit’ may be
getting ‘paid back.’ “Since the 1980s, fire frequency in the West has increased more than 300
percent, and the annual acreage burned has jumped 500 percent…” says Anthony Westerling
of the University of California’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute. These authors all recognize
that these studies don’t get into the specifics of types of ecosystems, acknowledging that there
could be significant differences between, for instance, grass lands and forests. This is more of
a ‘broad stroke picture’ of events.
While the factors reducing wildfire vulnerability continue to grow, the connection
between fires and climate still exist and we must stay ever vigilant to manage our western
landscape. The problem extends beyond our own lands and is, in fact, worse in other parts of
the world. While natural wildfire is an extremely difficult disaster that is near impossible to
control, ‘an ounce of prevention goes a long way’ as the old saying goes.
– Bj Hile
Tom Yulsman. ‘Fire Deficit May Trigger Fiercer Wildfires’ June 29th , 2012
Scientific American <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fire-deficit-trigger-
In ‘The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth.’,
Tim Flannery states that “To stay below (that threshold)*, we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 80%.”
I would venture to say that 80% would seem like a high number to any logical thinking person. In the
article ‘Energy Savings: It Starts at Home’, author Peter Miller chronicles a 30 day period in which he
and his wife attempt to get as close to that number as possible.
According to Scientists, the rise in our atmosphere’s average temperature is rising even faster
than predicted in previous years.(p.62) This is due, in part, to an increase in the emission of CO2 and
other ‘greenhouse gasses’ into the atmosphere. The obvious solution to this problem would be to limit
our output of these gasses, referred to as a ‘carbon footprint.’ The question is ‘Where to start?’ The best
place, says Peter Miller, as with most ecological ideas, is with individuals in their own homes.
The first step in the process was to gather some numbers by which to measure their own CO2
emissions in their home. The average output of the American Home is 150lbs. of CO2. With the
reduction recommended by Flannery that would mean the goal would be a much lower 30lbs. of CO2
emission per household per day. The following is a short list compiled by Miller applying emission
values to daily activities.
1.5lbs of CO2 per 1kWh
Natural Gas: 12lbs of CO2 per 100 ft3
19.7 lbs of CO2 per gallon
Using these values, Miller set out to discover ways of reducing their daily emissions, both
obvious and not so obvious. The more obvious ways include using public transportation, turning
electrical devices off when not in use, not using electrical devices for jobs that can be done by
hand(drying clothes, kitchen appliances, etc.) A few of the non obvious ways are lowering the
temperature on the hot water heater, unplugging power cables that aren’t connected to devices, and
having the ‘envelope'(p.68) of your house checked by a professional.
While Americans are driving farther and more often than ever,(p. 72) “Buildings, not cars, produce
the most CO2 in the U.S.”(p.72) This, of course, includes residential dwellings as well as businesses and
factories. Companies as Wal-Mart are creating test facilities in which they are using more efficient
ways of conducting business such as low emission lighting, high efficient heating and cooling and earth
The cost involved in retro-fitting current buildings is still significant without a quick return on
investment. There are a few companies such as DOW, DuPont, and 3M that are demonstrating that it
is a sound investment by making the dollar amount of their savings public. DOW has saved seven
billion dollars and reduced their CO2 output by 20% since 1995.
Heating and cooling a home can account for between 40% and 60% of the household energy
consumption. Making sure that the building is sealed and insulated properly can greatly decrease the
power needed to heat and cool it. There are professionals whose sole purpose is to test a home for
efficiency. The cost involved can be high but the investment will pay off in time.
The pathway to extending the life of our planet is clear. The first step, though, is making the
information available and helping individuals and companies to understand that they should and are
capable of reducing their carbon footprint. In a 2007 survey, only 24% of people stated that, if given
$10,000, they would invest it in efficiency. It is up to us to make the decision that working towards a
carbon neutral future is worth the investment. Miller stated that with little effort and almost no
monetary expenditures, he and his wife were able to cut their monthly emissions almost in half. It
starts with enlightenment and then becomes an easy decision to make those small lifestyle changes.
*-> ‘that threshold’ refers the threshold of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere in which the
temperature will reach a critical point as to melt icecaps and kill natural vegetation.
Miller, Peter. “Saving Energy: It Starts at Home” National Geographic March 2009 pg.60-pg.80
Size and Distribution of Alternative Energy Sources
Including Wind and Solar or ‘Green is Going Giant’
One of the largest issues with ‘Alternative Energy’ is the cost to build new systems when there
are already sources in place. It takes a desire to invest in our future to build these systems and time for
the investment to repay. In previous decades, it was thought that Solar and Wind energy were only
productive for small installations and had no way to hold up to large plants such as coal or nuclear.
There are companies, however, that are out to prove that raising the scale of renewable energy is not
only possible but more economic.
Arizona Public Service is a utility company in Tucson, Az. uses an array of mirrors that direct the
sun and heat a mineral oil to produce a liquid hydrocarbon which runs a generator. The mirrors equal
cover about 100,000 sq. ft. of area. At this size, the plant can produce about a megawatt of power. The
manufacturer, Acciona Solar Power, plans to open a 350 acre plant in Nevada that will be able to
produce 64 megawatts of power with similar technology. This is enough to power a medium sized town
including hospitals and malls.
In the early 1980’s in Hull, Mass. the municipality built a wind turbine to take advantage of the
strong breeze that blows from the ocean north of Boston. The turbine was able to power a handful of
homes at a generating capacity of 40 kilowatts. Given Hull’s close proximity to the ocean, slowing global
warming is in its best interest. A number of years later, the municipality built an even larger turbine
able to produce 660 kilowatts. While the original turbine looked like ‘a ham radio tower’, the new one,
named Hull 1, was on top of a 150 ft. tower. Only four years later, they installed Hull 2, a 1.8 megawatt
turbine. They are now working on four new turbines that can produce 3.6 megawatts each. Apart from
the increase in power, the larger, slimmer towers with the slower spinning blades are more aesthetically
A major difference between solar and wind powered apparatus and the larger coal burning
plants is that the major cost in coal is in mining and transportation while the cost of wind and solar
energy is split pretty evenly between the cost of parts and installation. To demonstrate this, the total
cost of Hull 2 was roughly $3 million. If 1,000 homes were to build 1.8 kilowatt homes they would
output the same amount of power but at a total cost of about $15 million. The investment period
before payoff would stay the same between the large and small scales. While a 14 year payback period
would be economical for a large installation, it would just not make sense at an individual scale.
In Nantucket Sound, there is a group working on the Cape Wind project. This is a project to
build an offshore wind farm of 130 3.6 megawatt turbines. The major cost in this project is not how
large the turbines are but rather the infrastructure to support them. This consists of underwater
structures to carry the electricity as well as the support structures to hold the towers. According to
Mark Rodger, a spokesperson for Cape Wind, states that ‘These are things that you are going to have to
do, whether it’s a very small or a very large offshore wind farm. The best bang for your buck is to go large.’
The same principals hold for solar cells. The cost of installing and maintaining a solar farm is
split almost evenly between the actual solar cells and the support structure around it. The costs
involved in transporting and installing these parts is significant and as stated earlier, given the
economics and size of the investment, bigger definitely is better.
– Bj Hile
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/07/business/businessspecial2/07big.html?pagewanted=all New York
Times; Matthew L. Wald; March 7th, 2007