Wildfires in a Rainforest and Melting Ice Caves: High Temperatures Are Causing Havoc in Washington

Low winter snow pack and a hot, dry spring set the conditions for wildfires and melting glacier ice, which scientists say are consistent with climate change predictions.

by Esha Dey
Jul 8 2015, 8:55pm

Image via Flickr

VICE News is closely tracking global environmental change. Check out the Tipping Point blog here.

Here's two alarming examples of how hot and dry the Pacific Northwest has become.

A lush rainforest in Washington state that gets nearly 12 to 14 feet of rainfall annually caught fire and has been burning for nearly two months, while an ice cave in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest collapsed under searing summer heat on Monday.

While fires are a common part of forest ecosystems, they are quite rare in green and humid rainforests. But this year, the combination of a long-standing drought and a hot, dry spring in has brought about a burning rainforest in the Queets River valley.

The Queets forest, which is part of the Olympic National Park, is one of the most magnificent examples of the country's temperate rainforests. Large, old trees such as Sitka spruce and western hemlock, as well as other conifers and deciduous species, populate the forest. Many of the trees are hundreds of years old and can reach 250 feet in height.

The fire was triggered by a lightning strike in May. But the conditions for prolonged wildfire were set much earlier. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the five-month period from November to March was 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the twentieth century average. The dry spring that followed created the conditions for one of the largest fires since the park was established in 1897.

Related: Climate change is causing a surge in extreme rainfall events

As of Tuesday, the wildfire had consumed 1,560 acres and is expected to burn through most of the summer, Kris Eriksen, a public information officer for the US Forest Service's National Incident Management Organization, told VICE News. At its current pace it is burning as much as 100 acres each day.

"Our primary objective is to keep it within the boundaries of the park … but even though it is a suppression fire, we cannot really suppress it right now," Eriksen said.

A suppression fire is one that authorities decide to put out rather than allowing it to burn. Eriksen said the fire is burning in an "incredibly heavy, steep forest," which firefighting units are unable to reach. And, water dropped from helicopters cannot extinguish the flames because of the thick forest canopy.

Clearing away trees or digging trenches in order to cut off the fire's fuel supply is difficult because trees in the Queets forest can be as thick as 30 to 60 feet and dense debris covers the forest floor.

Related: There's a 'warm blob' in the Pacific and it's partly to blame for BC forest fires, California drought, hurricanes

While scientists resist attributing specific extreme weather events to climate change, they have long warned that higher temperatures are likely to make wildfire seasons longer and more severe.

"Every hundred to three hundred years you will get a big intense fire — that is the norm," Dominick DellaSala, president and chief scientist of Geos Institute, a non-profit climate science organization based in Ashland, Oregon, told VICE News. "So that means it really isn't something that unusual, although it could be that over time, we get more of these because of climate change."

According to a study by the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, the state is expected to experience more frequent heat waves and more severe heavy rainfall events.

In a study conducted by the Geos Institute and two German research universities, scientists found that without drastic and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and new forest protection initiatives, the world's most expansive stretch of temperate rainforest, which stretches from Alaska to the coast redwoods in Central California, was liable to experience irreparable losses.

"We know from studies around the world that if rainforests are stressed by the combined impacts of climate change and land disturbances, there is little hope in maintaining their ecosystem benefits for people or wildlife over the long term," Patric Brandt of the Research Program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security, who participated in the study, said in a statement.

No one was injured in this video of an ice cave collapsing in Washington. It was taken just hours before one person was killed and four were injured in another ice cave collapse nearby. (Video via YouTube)

As Washington's rainforest continued to burn, one person was killed and five were injured at the Big Four Ice Caves when a large pile of ice and rock collapsed on Monday. The caves have now been closed to the public until further notice, but the public affairs officer at the park, Tracy O'Toole, pointed out that visitors were always recommended to marvel at them from a safe distance.

"This has been an unusually warm summer. Obviously, since the caves are made of ice, when the temperature is in the 90 degree Fahrenheit area, the ice will melt," O'Toole told VICE News. "[T]hat said, the ice caves are constant avalanche threats and are exceptionally dangerous to enter or climb on at any time of the year."

The Big Four Ice Caves, which lie at the bottom of the Big Four Mountain, are part of a low-altitude glacier. During the summer, when the ice melts, the water runs out from under the glacier to form cave structures.

"Because water is more dense than ice, it flows down, fractures and creates caves in the glacier … ice caves are a natural part of the glacial hydrology and are a reflection of a glacier's health," Timothy Creyts, a glaciologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told VICE News.

A US Geological Survey (USGS) report based on a record of glacier change patterns over fifty years has shown that glaciers in the Pacific Northwest, the Alaska Coast, and the Alaska interior have all shrunk rapidly, which the USGS researchers said could likely be attributed, in part, to drier climate conditions.  

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Image via Flickr