Drought, Climate Change, and Your Health

Despite the cold in the eastern U.S. this winter, the West was relatively warm and dry.  A warm dry winter in the West is bad.  It means less than normal snow pack, dry forests, forest fires, and the bad things that happen to people and communities as a result.

When the forest is dry in the spring, it leads to an early fire season and bigger fires.  This is exactly what’s been happening in the West for at least the past decade or so.  These warm, dry winters are just one of many signs that we are heading into a drought of epic proportions, especially in the Southwest, as we talked about in last week’s post. 

Just to recap, if we keep burning fossil fuels and emitting CO2 at the current rate, we can expect:

  • An 80% chance of a mega-drought lasting 35 years in the Southwest and Central Plains
  • A drought with no equal in human history, greater by far than the Dust Bowl era
  • Huge economic and health impacts

The  economic risks of drought are many.  Water intensive industries, such as farming, ranching, forestry, mining and power generation, will be the hardest hit.

The need for water for agriculture is obvious, but some folks don’t realize that water is a necessity for mining, which uses huge amounts of water to process ore.  Power plants also use huge amounts of water to make steam to drive turbines, and to cool power generation equipment.  Lack of water will hurt these industries, which means that people will lose their jobs and move away, and many towns and cities will shrink.

Besides the obvious and well established mental health risks that come from losing your livelihood and being forced to move, the health risks of drought are many, but we’re going to focus on the health impacts of forest fires in particular.

I come from a family of wildland firefighters.  It’s a good way to make a quick buck apart from your day job, at least when you’re young.  Plus, I love the mountains, so forest fires are an especially important topic for me.

Forest fires impact the air quality of hundreds of thousands of people every year.  If you’ve ever lived in a big western city, you’ve probably experienced at least one summer when a forest fire a hundred miles away turned your city into a big smoky mess.  And even if you didn’t realize it, a forest fire a thousand miles away may be making the air where you live worse.


Time-lapse Satellite Image of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, New Mexico, May 2012.


The risks from smoke are not just for asthmatics, but also the very young, the elderly, and those with chronic disease.  This is the same group of people affected by ozone, as you might recall from an earlier post on that topic.  If tiny increases in the amount of ozone can hurt hundreds of thousands of people over just a few decades, imagine what an increase in smoke from forest fires could do.

To give you an idea of the impacts of forest fires on health, we’re going to look at two scientific papers:  one about the increasing number and intensity of forest fires in the Southwest since the 1980s, and another one about the effect of forest fire smoke on the health of a small city.


Forest Fires

The first paper from 2006, is titled Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity (Westerling, et al, 2006, Science, 313:940-943).  The authors of this paper studied western wildfire activity over time, and concluded that there was an abrupt change in the mid-1980s from infrequent fires of short duration, to bigger, more frequent and longer burning fires.

They state that this change was likely due to reduced winter precipitation and unusually warm spring seasons that led to early snow melt, and longer summer dry seasons.  Because of the shift to warm and dry winters, forest fires went from lasting about a week, to burning an average of 5 weeks, which also implies that more forest is burnt than before.

Here’s a graph of how much forest was burnt over the past few decades.  You can see a definite increasing trend.

I remember that the 2011 and 2012 fire seasons were especially destructive.  Every fire was “the worst fire in state history,” for New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.  Here’s a list of the major fires from those years, for example…

  •    Wallow Fire, May – June 2011, largest in Arizona history
  •    Las Conchas Fire, May – June 2011, largest in New Mexico history
  •    Whitewater-Baldy Fire, May – June 2012, largest in New Mexico history (again)
  •    Waldo Canyon Fire, June – July 2012, most destructive in Colorado history

The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, Colorado was especially costly with 34,500 people evacuated and over 350 homes destroyed.  Part of the blame lays in the fact that more people are moving into harms way by moving into the mountains and forest, but the size and frequency of these fires is probably directly related to climate change.

It’s also important to note that millions of dollars of damage has been done, and millions more spent on fighting forest fires.  This is a direct economic impact of climate change that is happening right now.

If you want to see some incredible and surreal pictures and video from the Waldo Canyon fire, follow the links below…

Health Impacts

Drought induced forest fires are not just a theoretical risk to health, a someday-maybe sort of risk; this is real people being affected now.  As an example, I recall an 11-year-old girl I took care of in the pediatric emergency room a couple of years ago.

She had a severe asthma attack after being exposed to smoke from a forest fire.  We took good care of her, and sent her home later that day.   For me, the link to the forest fire, which was the biggest fire in state history at the time, and climate change is hard to deny.

When a forest burns, tiny smoke and ash particles are lofted into the atmosphere and spread over hundreds to thousands of miles.  These particles are small enough to get deep into the lungs and cause problems.  If you are very young, very old, have asthma or other lung diseases, then you are in trouble.

The impact of forest fire smoke on health is shown in the graph below from an excellent study titled, Population Health Effects of Air Quality Changes Due to Forest Fires in British Columbia in 2003: Estimates from Physician-visit Billing Data, (Moore, et al, 2006, Can J Pub Hlth, 97(2):105-108).


The top part of the figure shows levels of particles in the air before and after a large forest fire in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, a city of about 179,000 people. The dotted vertical line shows when the fire started.

The bottom part of the figure compares visits to local doctors for respiratory complaints between two periods of time; the previous 9 years of visits (grey squares), and the visits during the forest fire (black circles).  If forest fire smoke makes people sick and go to the doctor, then the two sets of symbols will separate from each other.  This is exactly what happens.


Neighborhood Residents evacuate from Waldo Canyon Fire, photo by Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette

What Should We Do to Protect Ourselves?

So now we see that southwestern winters are getting more warm and dry, forest fires are getting bigger and longer lasting, and forest fire smoke makes people sick.  Pretty straightforward.  So what should we do if we live in an area prone to drought and forest fires?

For most climate change problems I hope to suggest ways to cope and adapt, but there really only one solution in this case, and that’s not to let it happen in the first place.

Nobody — not you, not me, not the fabulously wealthy — will easily adapt to a megadrought.  So the best course would be to prevent it if we can, because we will all be forced to move if we can’t.

Based on the study we looked at last time, there is a significant difference in the chance of megadrought between modest CO2 emissions reduction scenario and worst case, business as usual scenario.

“Western winters are warm and dry, forest fires are bigger and longer lasting, forest fire smoke makes people sick ~ http://ctt.ec/aB4Ud+”

If you were my patient and you came to me with some terrible disease, and I told a you that you had a better chance of survival with treatment, versus doing nothing, I think the choice would be obvious.  In the case of megadrought, the “treatment” is to keep within our fossil fuel budget to hold warming below 2C.  We have to leave it in the ground, divest from fossil fuel investments, adopt even more alternative energy, help developing countries skip the need for fossil fuels, and so on.  We have to get off the “worst case” path that we are on.

City, county, state and federal governments will have to work together to manage water resources, probably just to survive, if not for economic reasons.  Fights over water have always been vicious throughout human history. With increasing population worldwide, shifting rainfall patterns, melting glaciers and drought brought on by climate change, water is poised to be THE major source of conflict in the coming decades.  ( I think Obama got it right.  Which is the bigger threat?  A few thousand ignorant terrorists, or a billion thirsty and hungry people? )

Agriculture will have to adapt to low water-use systems, water-intensive industries will have to conserve and use less water.  Coal and nuclear power are water hogs, so they should be phased out and replaced by solar and wind power, which require no water to operate.

Beyond the big picture stuff, we as individuals will have to cut our own CO2 emissions, and drastically cut back on water wasting behaviors.  A green lawn is the biggest offense and just plain unnatural for almost all the arid land west of the Mississippi River.  Water will eventually be strictly rationed in large parts of the West, so no more lawns, no more car washes, no more fountains, no more hosing off your driveway.


Here are two water conservation and two forest fire safety sites for you.  I checked them out and the info looks primo.



Some impacts of climate and drought we did not go into in-depth include:  what are the specific social and psychological impacts of large scale unemployment and forced migration? what happens when farmers can’t grow crops and ranchers can’t raise livestock?  where will  people end up if they can’t work and there’s no water?

All of these are interconnected and critical questions.  We can look to the past for some of the answers, although the potential magnitude of what can happen has no parallel in human history.  Future blog topics for sure.

Here’s a summary of what we’ve covered in this post…

  • Warm winters lead to dry forests, which lead to forest fires
  • Forest fires pollute the air with smoke 100’s to 1,000s of miles away
  • Smoke causes people with asthma and other chronic diseases to suffer
  • The only real solution to a megadrought is to prevent it by phasing out fossil fuels
  • Encourage industry and communities to be good stewards of our limited water resources
  • Conserve water at home
  • Prepare for water emergencies and long-term shortages
  • Prepare for fire and smoke emergencies
  • Be one of the first to migrate before the SHTF

What will you do to keep the worst from happening, or to prepare for the worst if it does?

(Cover Image from Denver Post Photo Blog)