Experts Say Drought, Wildfire Risk to Persist Across Much of US This Fall

A tree casts embers as the North Complex Fire burns in Plumas National Forest, Calif., on Monday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CN) — As historic wildfires continue to burn across California, Oregon and other Western states, government climate experts say much of the U.S. is likely to see persistent drought conditions and fire risk alongside continued above-average temperatures through the fall.

During a briefing Thursday, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that while wetter conditions are expected to bring some drought relief to parts of the Pacific Northwest and New England in the months ahead, drought conditions are likely to persist or even worsen in Central and Southern California and across the Southwest.

“That would certainly elevate the chances for continued elevated wildfire risk,” Brad Pugh, a meteorologist with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, told reporters.

The forecast comes amid a year of unusually warm temperatures across the U.S. and much of the world. NOAA says 2020 is “virtually certain” to rank as one of the five warmest years on record since 1880.

This year is also likely to become one of the costliest years on record for damages from natural disasters that scientists say are becoming more intense because of climate change.

“The United States has a high likelihood of trying — or even perhaps breaking — the 40-plus year annual record for highest number of U.S. billion-dollar disasters to affect the country,” NOAA climatologist Adam Smith said during Thursday’s briefing.

The agency defines “billion-dollar” disasters as those where damages reached or surpassed $1 billion. The U.S. saw 14 of those events last year that raked up $45.4 billion in damages, according to NOAA.

Smith said the nation saw 10 billion-dollar disasters just through June, a number that doesn’t count the flurry of wildfire activity that began in August.

“We have a lot of fire season still ahead of us,” he said.

While many recent headlines about disasters have centered on wildfires and hurricanes, the rare “derecho” wind storm that blasted across the Midwest in August also significantly contributed to nature’s destructive toll this year.

According to NOAA, the storm affected more than 10 million acres of mostly corn crops across Iowa, a figure that represents 43% of the state’s total crops.

“Just the crop losses alone are in the billions of dollars,” Smith said.

The role of climate change in natural disasters, particularly when it comes to wildfires, has recently become embroiled in the U.S. presidential election. President Donald Trump has repeatedly denied or dismissed the expertise of scientists who have linked climate change to the conditions that enabled this year’s fires. Former Vice President Joe Biden has meanwhile slammed Trump for what the Democratic challenger called the president’s “path of indifference” on climate change.

Though the coronavirus pandemic led to a brief, record-breaking drop in climate change-causing carbon emissions earlier this year as economies shut down and global travel slowed to a crawl, those emissions had already rebounded by early June to near pre-pandemic levels, according to a recent climate report from the United Nations and other organizations.

Notably, even with the pandemic’s continued drag on the global economy, NOAA experts said Thursday that last month was still the second warmest August on record, yet another sign that the pandemic has not significantly slowed the pace of climate change.

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