Alaska's Senator Murkowski Fiddles as Alaska Burns

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Just two months after acknowledging that "Alaska is ground zero for climate change," Alaska's Senator Lisa Murkowki (Republican,  Alaska) announced yesterday (24 May 2010) that the Senate on 10 June would vote on a resolution (S.J.Res 26) she introduced in January.  If passed by the Senate and the House, it would reject an "endangerment" finding by the Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gases pose a threat to the health and welfare of Alaskans and other Americans. It also would reject a related "cause or contribute" finding that new vehicles contribute to that pollution. 

Yesterday's announcement came the same day that former EPA Administrator Russell E. Train wrote to Senate leaders Harry Reid (Democrat, Nevada) and Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky), urging the Senate to reject the resolution, arguing that it "would fundamentally undermine the Clean Air Act, overturning science in favor of political considerations" (see our posting, Former EPA Administrator Russell E. Train Urges Senate to Reject Efforts to Weaken Clean Air Act , 25 May 2010).

Also on the day of Murkowski's announcement, the National Weather Service raised "red flag" warnings over large parts of Alaska.   According to the NWS, "a red flag warning means that conditions are occurring or will occur which could lead to the development of large and dangerous fires." 

Longterm warming is occurring in Alaska and when warmer temperatures have combined with below normal precipitation over the last decade, fire seasons have covered record expanses of the state.  During the 2004 season, fires scorched a record 6.6 million acres of the state.  Whereas 9.8 million acres burned in the 1990s, 18.97 million acres burned during the following decade of the 2000s.  See figure below.

Alaska Acres Burned, 1955-2009.

As Alaska faces another destructive and smoky wildfire season, Senator Murkowski's efforts promise to leave her constituents facing a long-term future increasingly dominated by such conditions as climate disruption accelerates.

EPA says "disturbances like wildfires are increasing and are likely to intensify in a warmer future"  

EPA's endangerment finding noted a comprehensive assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that "reported with very high confidence that in North America, disturbances like wildfires are increasing and are likely to intensify in a warmer future with drier soils and longer growing seasons."  EPA said that "[i]f existing trends in precipitation continue, it is expected that forest productivity will likely decrease in the Interior West, the Southwest, eastern portions of the Southeast, and Alaska..."

The EPA furthermore found that emissions from the wildfires "can adversely impact public health and welfare and are expected to increase due to climate change;" and that the emissions "can contribute to acute and chronic illnesses of the respiratory system, particularly in children, including pneumonia, upper respiratory diseases, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease."

National Research Council: Action Needed as Wildfire Conditions Worsen with Climate Change

Just last week (19 May 2010), the National Research Council reinforced EPA's findings.  In Advancing the Science of Climate Change, the NRC said:

"...large and long duration forest fires have increased four–fold over the past 30 years in the American West; the length of the fire season has expanded by 2.5 months; and the size of wildfires has increased several–fold. Recent research indicates that earlier snowmelt, temperature changes, and drought associated with climate change are important contributors to this increase in forest fire. Climate change in the western United States is also increasing populations of forest pests such as the spruce beetle, pine beetle, spruce budworm, and wooly adelgid, and expanding their range into forested areas previously protected from insect attack. Climate change thus increases the complexity and costs of forest and fire management practices, which in turn are strongly affected by policy." [emphasis added] 

The NRC warns that as climate change accelerates, "[t]hese trends are likely to continue."

Railbelt Complex Smoke Column on July 27, 2009.  Source:  Mike McMillan - Alaska Division of Forestry.

Railbelt Complex Smoke Column on July 27, 2009.  Source:  Mike McMillan - Alaska Division of Forestry.

The same day, the NRC emphasized in Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change the need to prepare for these and other consequences of climate change.  Without such adaptive measures, "the risks of negative consequences that could accompany these types of impacts are heightened."  The NRC further said in Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change that there is an urgent need for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions  in order to slow climate change, to reduce the impacts, and to give the nation a better chance of coping with the consequences. 

For additional details, see our blog posting,  National Research Council Reaffirms Climate Change Science; Cites Urgent Need to Reduce Emissions and Prepare for Impacts.

Early and Active Start to Alaska's 2010 Wildfire Season

In our posting on 8 May 2010 (Elevated Wildfire Outlook for Interior Northwest and Alaska Reflects Natural Climate Variability and Long-term Climate Change ), we noted that the National Interagency Fire Center said at the beginning of May 2010 that it expects above average wildfire potential in Alaska. "Below normal winter snowpack over much of Alaska and anticipated developing drought over the central and southern interior will contribute to lower than normal fuel moistures," NIFC said. 

Just three weeks later, on 23 May 2010,  the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center said in its Morning Highlights [PDF]: 

John Gould, the Manager of BLM Alaska Fire Service (AFS) says it is "fair to say that the fire behavior is unusual for this time of year and, in the Central Interior at least, is representative of the burning conditions we normally have in mid to late June." Due to the uncharacteristically significant early fire season activity in Interior Alaska, and the potential for large-scale, long term fires, AFS and Alaska Division of Forestry are working with jurisdictional agencies to evaluate the need for more aggressive actions to be taken on all fires. This is based on the consideration of long-term smoke impacts on human health and transportation systems.

The same day, the Alaska Area 7 Day Significant Fire Potential, issued by the Bureau of Land Management said: 

"Duff Moisture Codes (DMC) are above normal for mid May with some stations in the Central Interior approaching record levels for this date. This indicates a greater potential for fires to burn deeper into the duff than might be expected for the third week in May. As we move ever closer to the Summer Solstice, long hours of sunlight will bring extensive heating and drying, keeping the fine fuels and DMC indices above normal."

Like yesterday, red flag warnings went up again today (25 May 2010) in many parts of Alaska, prompted by low relative humidities, high temperatures and the potential for so-called "dry lightning" storms -- storms that produce lightning that is accompanied by little or no rain and that often ignites wildfires. 

Already this year 50,608 acres have been burned in 168 fires in the state.  In view of the growing wildfire risk, Alaska's smokejumpers are being boosted by smokejumpers from Boise, Idaho; and other firefighting resources are being mobilized.

Below: WWF video urging Alaskans to support comprehensive energy and climate legislation (See press release, WWF TV Ads Urge Alaskans to Ask Senators to Support Climate Legislation )

Online Resources:

 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Sen. Murkowski Offers Disapproval Resolution to Block EPA Endangerment of Economy.  Press release (21 Jan 2010) from Office of Senator Lis Murkowski.

EPW Majority United in Opposition to Murkowski Effort to Overturn EPA Global Warming Endangerment Finding.  Press release (21 January 2010) from U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Environment and Public Works.  See also:  Senator Boxer to Hold Press Conference on Murkowski Proposal to Overturn EPA Global Warming Endangerment Finding.  Archived Webcast of press conference held on 21 January 2010.

Congressional Review Act. "The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to review every new federal regulation issued by the government agencies and, by passage of a joint resolution, overrule a regulation."

Postings from Joe Romm of Climate Progress:

No Dirty Air Act.  Site sponsored by Clean Energy Works.

Alaska Interagency Coordination Center:

  • Morning Highlights [PDF].  Updated Daily.
  • Alaska Wildland Fire Suppression Media Guide [PDF].  "The Media Guide provides a general overview to wildland fire response in Alaska, including agency relationships, personnel, terminology, and most importantly, sources for additional information regarding wildland fire and smoke."

Bureau of Land Management:

WWF Climate Change Blog:




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