Where I Stand: The leading edge of extreme climate change – do the math

By Ken Donnell

Plumas News contributor

It has been difficult to respond to Climate Change critics who correctly argue that “the climate is always changing.”.  But historic climate change is slow and steady. What we are experiencing now is a rapid acceleration of climate-related disaster events far above historical records. 

Climate scientists have waited patiently to discover data which confirms that this Climate Change process has accelerated to such extreme levels that only human activity can account for this rapid increase.    

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Mathematical analysis of  data for wildfire activity in the Feather River Watershed of Plumas County, California between the years 2000 (Y2K) and 2021 provides this confirmation.  This mathematical analysis documents how such wildfires are expanding at a geometric rate, and doubling in size every five years. Such a geometric rate of expansion is a severe warning that YES, Extreme Climate Change is a reality we must recognize and include with all future plans for life in this region.  It’s all in the math.

 Science is based on identifying patterns in our world which can be documented, analyzed, and repeated. For Math, the same equation always yields the same answer.   Recent Extreme Climate Disaster Events around planet earth have been rapidly increasing, but it has been difficult to identify repeatable patterns capable of scientific analysis. When mathematics are applied to scientific perspectives of ecology and geology, the historical rate of climate change is arithmetic, not geometric.  

Arithmetic is… 1+1=2,  2+1=3,  3+1=4,  4+1=5, 5+1=6, 6+1=7,  7+1=8.   etc.

Geometric is…  1+1=2,  2+2=4,  4+4=8,  8+8=16, 16+16=32, 32+32=64,  64+64=128.    etc.

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Seven arithmetic equations equals 8. Seven Geometric equations equals 128. Arithmetic change is slow and steady. Geometric change accelerates rapidly, and at a level which quickly becomes difficult to predict and impossible to control. Any system expanding geometrically is “accelerating towards out of control.”

The Storrie Fire in August of Y2K was the first “Megafire” in the Feather River Watershed.  It was a whopping 50,000 acres.  Larger and more intense fires have followed in Plumas County, leading up to the Dixie Fire in 2021 at 960,000 acres.   When we do the math for this increase of wildfire activity, we can observe that the size and intensity of wildfires in Plumas county is doubling approximately every five years. 

50,000 acres in Y2K becomes 100,000 acres in 2005

100K acres in 2005 becomes 200K in 2010   (the 180K Moonlight Fire of 2008, then the largest Megafire in California History)

200K acres in 2010 become 400K in 2015

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400K acres in 2015 become 800K acres in 2020  (in 2021, the Dixie Fire consumes 960K acres. ) 

This represents a geometric rate of expansion which confirms that, under pressure from Extreme Climate Change, the ecology of the Feather River Watershed is a system which is “accelerating towards out of control.” 

Equally significant is the fact that the Storrie Fire in Y2K, the Chips Fire in 2012, and the Dixie Fire in 2021 all started within the same geographical footprint of the Feather River Watershed, and approximately 10 years apart.  The later fires literally “burned on to pf the previous fire(s).”  These three fires form a “repeatable pattern” which can be scientifically analyzed. This 10-year spacing for Megafires also reinforces the need to rebuild Greenville in a wildfire resilient manner to prepare for a possible future Megafire in 10 to 20 years.  

During these same 20 years, annual wildfire acreage in California has increased threefold. A 2.8 million acre annual wildfire average between Y2K to 2004 increased to 8.8 million acres between 2017 to 2021 (2.8 x 3= 8.4).  Between Y2K and 2004, there was only one fire year season greater than 1 million acres.  Between 2017 to 2021,  4 out of 5 years have exceeded 1 million acres burned per year.   

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Recently, a university based scientific study in Australia documented wildfire increases on that continent which are consistent with data from California and the Feather River Watershed.  This study was reported on the internet at:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/29/australias-forest-fires-fanned-by-climate-crisis-study

This Australian study was expansive, and covered a large continent. Notably, it documented an average re-occurrence for wildfires of 20 years, which is similar to the 10 year pattern of the Storrie, Chips, and Dixie Fires. 

Part of interpreting the significance of geometric climate change comes with understanding how average humans, ecologists and geologists view the passage of time.   Humans typically view time, and the changes of time, in periods less than a century… approximately the memory of one’s grandparents.  Most government planning for disaster events prepares for “100 year flood, wind, fire, or earthquake events.”  An ecologist views time in approximately 100 years to 10,000 year cycles.  A geologist views time in millions of years, or hundreds of million years.

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To a geologist, a thousand years is less than the blink of an eye, and are the most brief activity for earth changes recorded by geologists.  The valleys of the Feather River Watershed have been shaped by thousand-year Megaflood events and 20-40K year glacial cycles over the past 200+ million years.  A thousand years may sound like a long time to humans, but there are a lot of thousand year Megafloods in 200 million years.   Some moderate glacial periods partially filled up the valleys with ice. Heavy glacial periods have covered mountaintops.  

Ecologists view changes in terms of event cycles that occur approximately every 10, 100, 500, and 1,000 years.  Using tree ring data, ecologists have documented  how the Southwest USA historically follows a 1500 year drought cycle.  The last big drought period was in the 1300s.  The recent century from 1850 to 1950 appears to represent a peak period of abundant rainfall, and this region is possibly returning towards a deep drought cycle over the next 5 to 8 centuries.  Our more frequent and longer drought periods may be part of a natural cycle which is being accelerated by Extreme Climate Change.  

Simply stated, human activity is accelerating ecological, and possibly geological, processes so that the earth’s climates are changing at an extremely accelerated rate.  Such Extreme Climate Change creates a form of “Climate Chaos,” which results in more frequent and extreme climate driven disaster events.  100 year climate disaster events are beginning to appear in 10 year cycles (the Storrie, Chips and Dixie fires).   We will soon begin to observe thousand year year level disaster events occurring regularly.  The recent Megafires in the Feather River Watershed during the 2020 and 2021 fire seasons might quality as a “thousand year disaster event.” 

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I want to emphasize that my analysis is interpretive, not definitive. It can be compared to using a single drop of blood to analyze the heath of a whole human being. But doctors and scientists do record significant amounts of data from a single drop of blood, and when the math works too, this is a powerful sign we need to pay close attention to what this data is telling us. We do know our Earth’s crust, and the ecology of our habitable climates, are delicate systems which can be easily disrupted. Recent Megafire activity in the Feather River Watershed can be viewed as a “canary in the mine” issuing a warning that more frequent and severe Climate Disaster Events are imminent, both in our region, and elsewhere around the world.,

This story does not have a happy ending because there is no easy way to fix these problems. Extreme Climate Change is being driven by forces of human over-population, and human over-consumption. The fantasy solution is to find some form of cleaner, more abundant, and carbon free renewable energy so that we can continue our currently unsustainable lifestyles farther into the future. Yes, there is a small chance this fantasy solution might be successful, but the window of opportunity to accomplish such a “technological fix” is rapidly narrowing. Plus, such a fantasy solution would only be temporary if human population and consumption continue to expand. 

I agree with opinions that humans have survived many previous threats of extinction because we are a highly adaptive species. Another opinion I hold is that citizens of Plumas County are more adaptive than most people I have met around this world. If we in Plumas County begin to prepare now, we  can be well positioned to survive any future Extreme Climate Change Disaster Event.  

Long before these Megafires, life in Plumas County was tough.  Many people came and left who did not have the strength to adapt, the strength to “carry their own weight,” or the emotional strength needed to work with people different than themselves. I am not frightened by even the worst future Extreme Climate Change disaster scenarios for Plumas County. Somehow, we will survive. I  hope we will reasonably prepare for such Extreme Climate Change events, but not to the point of becoming extremists.  

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As always, I recommend that we:

Be calm

Think Clearly

Act decisively, and

Never lose our sense of humor.