Rising temperatures and a growing wildfire are creating dangerous fire clouds and firestorms that can generate their own lightning in the skies above southern Oregon.
The Bootleg Fire, the largest blaze currently burning in the US, has torched more than 241,000 acres (377 square-miles) since it started July 6 in Klamath County. It’s only 7% contained as of Friday.
As heat and smoke from large fires rise skyward, they can create storms comprised of what are known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds. These thunderheads produce their own weather, including tornadoes in rare cases, which can then spark new fires. It’s a vicious cycle.
The Oregonian blaze is also creating pyrocumulus, or flammagenitus, clouds – the second word is Latin for “created from flame.”
These fire clouds consist of up to 6-mile-high columns of smoke and ash that are visible from more than 100 miles away. The Bootleg Fire has generated multiple pyrocumulus clouds of this size for the last four days in a row, the Associated Press reported Friday.
Authorities said the clouds form between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. local time everyday, as heat from the baking ground below rises skyward.
‘Fire-breathing dragon of clouds’
“Pyrocumulus clouds above active fires, especially large fires, are relatively common,” Nick Nauslar from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho told the Los Angeles Times.
But if you spot a bank of thicker, taller thunderheads looming over an intense wildfire, those are almost always pyrocumulonimbus clouds, Nauslar said.
NASA describes pyrocumulonimbus storms as the “fire-breathing dragon of clouds.” They can also generate hundreds of lightning strokes, which in turn can spark more blazes.
In general, thunderstorms form when lots of warm, moist air from the ground rise into the sky. As it enters the lowest part of the atmosphere, that air cools, and then sinks closer to Earth – where it warms up again, and subsequently rises. That cycle of rising and falling air is known as convection, and births cumulonimbus, or thunder, clouds.
But when that heat and moisture rise from a smoky wildfire rather than the ground, the convection creates pyrocumulonimbus clouds.
These anvil-shaped clouds can generate rain like other thunderstorms. Often, though, they unleash powerful, blasts of air known as “downbursts,” rather than water droplets. In pushing dry air back down toward the ground, these downbursts can scatter a blaze’s embers and smoke across large distances. That fuels the flames that generated the storm in the first place.
In September 2020, the Creek Fire in California created one of the largest types of these clouds ever seen in the US – It measured 175,893 acres, or 275 square miles, in size (an area more than three times the size of Seattle).
Rising temperatures and drier air are associated with more frequent and more intense wildfires. And as wildfires increase in size and severity, fire-generated storms, too, are becoming more common.
In 2002, Canada, the US, and Mexico saw about 17 such storms in total. About two decades later, the average number of annual pyrocumulonimbus events had jumped to 25 in western North America alone, Yale360 reported.
The network, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, announced in December 2020 that it would debut Fox Weather, a 24-hour channel devoted to all things meteorological, by the end of the year.
The channel promises “cutting-edge display technology” with “forecasting experts surrounding every major weather event,” according to a press release.
The channel will be led by six meteorologists, including Jason Frazer, Britta Merwin, Craig Herrera, Brigit Mahoney, Nick Kosir, and Stephen Morgan, the New York Times reported. Shane Brown, a meteorologist from The Weather Channel, already defected to Fox last month.
A Public Citizen analysis in 2019 found that 86% of climate segments that aired on Fox News in 2018 included claims dismissing or casting doubt on the global threat.
“Fox News has access to and is highly trusted by a wide range of conservative Americans – which is precisely the audience that least well understands the serious threats that climate change poses to the safety, security, and health of all Americans,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, told the Guardian.
“If Fox chooses to use its access and credibility to inform viewers about the realities of climate change and its impacts on the weather, it could be a game-changer. Conversely, if it opts to perpetuate misinformation to advance political goals, it will be a huge disservice to all Americans – conservative, liberal and moderate,” Maibach added.
Michael Mann, another climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, told E&E News that Fox News has been “the greatest promoter of climate change disinformation over the past two decades.”
A Fox Weather spokeswoman told the Times: “While the Weather Channel is focused on trolling FoxNews.com for unrelated stories, Fox Weather is busy preparing the debut of our innovative platform to deliver critical coverage to an incredibly underserved market.”
According to a Fox News statement sent to The Guardian, Fox Weather will “provide in-depth reporting surrounding all weather conditions.”
“We are excited to showcase to viewers what a full-service comprehensive weather platform can deliver beginning this fall,” the statement read.
The move by Fox News comes amid increasing demand for weather updates, the New York Times reported.
A rapid attribution study published this week concluded that the heatwave across the Pacific Northwest, which has killed more than 100 people, would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change, CNN reported.
More than 30 million people are under excessive heat warnings or heat advisories as record temperatures are experienced in the West, according to the National Weather Service.
Death Valley in Eastern California reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday, one of the hottest recorded temperatures on earth. Forecasters warned temperatures on Sunday could be just as high, encouraging people to heed warnings and not put themselves or first responders in danger in the extreme heat.
Some cities in California experienced record high temperatures on Saturday, including 120 degrees in Palm Springs, The Los Angeles Times reported. Officials in the state asked residents to conserve electricity due to the toll on state’s power grid and threats from wildfires.
Areas of the Western US have been experiencing dangerously high temperatures for weeks. Hundreds of deaths and more than 1,100 hospitalizations were linked to a brutal heat wave in the Pacific Northwest late last month.
Some Northwest cities experienced multiple days in a row of triple-digit temperatures. The heatwaves and accompanying power outages forced some people out of their homes and into cooling centers.
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The latest shortage hitting the American West? Water. And while Chick-fil-A sauce and semiconductors are important for a functioning economy, this year’s historic drought in the West could affect-and we do mean this-literally everything.
The state of play: California Gov. Gavin Newsom has put 41 counties under a state of emergency in an attempt to drastically limit water use. Some scientists say the region is facing the worst drought in centuries.
Who’s getting hit the hardest?
Anyone who eats food. The water levels of 1,500+ reservoirs in California are 50% lower than normal at this time of year, per Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC-Davis. This means huge cuts to the water that farmers in the state use to produce over 25% of the country’s food supply.
Your morning breakfast of Blue Diamond almond milk and habanero BBQ almonds could be impacted. California accounts for 80% of the US’ almond supply, but because of shrinking water allocations, some farmers are simply bulldozing those notoriously thirsty almond trees.
Anyone who uses electricity. Officials are predicting the water level of Lake Oroville, the Beyoncé of California lakes, to hit a record low in August. If that happens, they would need to shut down a major hydroelectric power plant, putting extra strain on the electrical grid during the hottest part of the summer.
Anyone who is a fish. In April, California officials announced they’d be driving 146 truckloads of 15+ million young salmon to the Pacific Ocean because the fish wouldn’t be able to swim in the dangerously shallow, warm waterways connecting the state’s Central Valley to the ocean.
Anyone who dislikes wildfires.Five of the six largest wildfires in modern California history happened during the 2020 wildfire season, killing 30+ people. Experts say the current conditions are much worse.
Bottom line: This drought could have devastating consequences for the state’s agriculture, wildlife preservation, and tourism industries. #BoatSummer in California is not looking good.
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National data released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supports what scientists have been shouting for years: The ongoing climate crisis has created a wet, hot, American climate.
Climate normals are calculated by meteorologists based on 30-years of data to avoid the randomness of daily weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updates the country’s normal every decade, noting annual, seasonal, and monthly climate normals for the country as a whole, as well as individual states and cities.
Tuesday’s data includes data from more than 9,000 daily reporting stations collected from 1991 to 2020.
“The biggest signal that we’re seeing is a warming throughout the United States,” Mike Palecki, project manager for US climate normals at NOAA, told Insider.
Except for a few states in the Northern-Central region of the country, the nation has seen a “pretty ubiquitous warming,” over the past thirty years, especially in the Western US, the Southern end of the US, and the East Coast, Palecki said.
The yearly normal temperature for the country as a whole reached a record-high of 53.3 degrees Fahrenheit (11.8 degrees Celsius) – one full degree warmer than the normal temperature twenty years ago. Since the country’s first normal was calculated between 1901 and 1930, the contiguous US has warmed 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius).
“The last couple of 30-year normal periods have shown very substantial warming over the contiguous US and Alaska,” Palecki said.
He noted that normals aren’t the best product for actually ascertaining climate change, but said they do reflect the impacts the climate crisis has had on the country’s normal, day-to-day climate.
Palecki said the hotter normals were “definitely” a sign of ongoing climate change.
“We’re taking this 30-year snapshot and we’re seeing the fingerprints of the kind of climate change we would expect related to increasing greenhouse gasses,” he said. “These are expected from a lot of our modeling studies of climate change.”
In addition to warmer temperatures throughout most of the nation, the new data also shows an increase in precipitation in the eastern and central parts of the country, while conditions in the West have become notably drier.
For example, New York City, Seattle, and Asheville all saw increases in rainfall. But in Phoenix and Los Angeles, rainfall dropped considerably.
Though people tend to focus most on warming temperatures, Palecki said climate change’s impacts are complex.
“Atmospheric circulation changes, cloudiness changes, rainfall patterns, snow cover, all of these things feed back into the temperatures, so you get a pattern of temperature change, and not the same temperature change everywhere,” he said.
Such complexities likely explain why states like Minnesota, Montana, and the Dakotas, didn’t see increasing temperatures, and in North Dakota’s case, actually recorded a cooler new normal than the previous thirty-year period.
Though climate scientists are somewhat mixed on how useful new normals are – Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann told The Associated Press that adjusting the normal every decade “perverts the meaning of ‘normal’ and ‘normalizes’ away climate change” – Palecki said having a standard “normal” is beneficial for everyone from broadcast meteorologists to energy companies, and agricultural workers to retail vendors selling seasonal clothes.
“The actual normals themselves are key to…putting today’s weather in context and tomorrow’s forecast in context,” he said.
Texas residents who endured days without power during last week’s winter storms are facing a new obstacle: Electricity bills over $5,000 for just a few days of energy.
Some customers of state-owned electric grid are seeing the eye-popping, five-figure power bills because their plans are tied to the wholesale market rate. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, residents have been hit with $1,000 per day charges for electricity, The Dallas Morning News reported. Residents have taken to social media to show $5,000 bills – or more – over a period of about five days.
CPS Energy, the electric utility in San Antonio, said some consumers can expect “exorbitant” bills in the coming weeks, KSAT reported. The utility might try to minimize the hit by spreading the charges over a period of up to 10 years, the news station said.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott met with local lawmakers Saturday to address the latest crisis. “We are moving quickly to alleviate this problem and will continue to work collaboratively throughout this week on solutions to help Texas families and ensure they do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills,” Abbott said in a statement.
Spiking bills won’t hit state residents who had fixed-rate electric plans. The problem for many comes from index or variable rate plans, in which rates to power their home or business change with the price in the wholesale market. In good times, a customer’s bill can be lower – but if the price of electricity skyrockets, so too do bills.
Last Monday, as freezing weather rolled through Texas and the southeastern US, the wholesale price of electricity shot up 10,000%. It went from about $50 per megawatt hour to $9,000 – a system cap, according to data provided by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid’s operator.
The price increase came as sources of electricity, like natural-gas plants, went offline in the freezing temperatures. Meantime, the unusually cold weather for a mostly temperate state meant demand for energy went up, as people turned up their heaters to stay warm.
ERCOT responded with rolling blackouts, it said, so as not to further damage the grid. The blackout, which affected a few million residents at its peak, is among the largest in US history.
ERCOT did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment about the wholesale electricity price and reports of spiking consumer bills.
It’s unclear how many Texas residents have variable or index-rate electric plans. Texans are allowed to shop for their power plans in its deregulated retail electricity market.
Griddy, one of the state’s electric companies, provides access to wholesale electricity for a monthly membership. Last week, it urged its nearly 30,000 customers to switch energy providers if they couldn’t afford the soaring rates, The Dallas Morning News reported.
Some state lawmakers think some residents might not understand how their electricity is billed.
On Sunday, power had been restored across much of Texas, though many people remain without water after pipes froze and burst. Damages from the storm, which left dozens dead, is expected to approach $50 billion, AccuWeather predicted.
Abbott has called the blackout event “unacceptable” and said he would add the reform of ERCOT as an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session.
The estimate, provided earlier this week by AccuWeather CEO Joel Myers, accounts for lost wages, damages to businesses and homes, and cleanup costs across the region.
AccuWeather’s Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter said that the estimate “denotes the historic magnitude and just how much of a life-threatening crisis this has been for people in the Southern Plains, the Southeast and especially Texas.”
“It’s it’s yet another setback for businesses that don’t need it in a very challenging year,” Porter continued.
The forecasting-technology company reported serious damage to homes and businesses after freezing cold temperatures caused water pipes to burst and other issues in the state, which was resoundingly unprepared for such a major cold snap.
According to reporting by Insider, as of Friday, the majority of Texans affected by the blackout had their power restored. At its peak, the blackout affected over 3 million people. Winter storms pummeled the state’s energy grid and forced shutoffs to power and heat. Porter said that he week’s weather pattern was the worst cold front in Texas since December of 1989.
Since Texas effectively operates on its own power grid, it is difficult for the state to draw power from other areas that are not experiencing blackouts, Insider reported.
The Verge reported that individual consumers heating their homes after the blackouts will face staggering energy costs. And wholesale electricity customers are similarly in the hole: The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said that on February 15, wholesale electricity prices surged to over $9,000 per megawatt-hour, up from $50.
Politicians have had mixed responses to the blackouts. Amid the economic devastation, Texas Senator Ted Cruz faced criticism over his decision to travel to Cancún. He said on Thursday that the decision to leave the state was a “mistake.”
Beto O’Rourke, who ran against Cruz for the Texas Senate seat, organized a phone bank to help older Texans, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran a donation drive that raised over $1 million, Insider reported Friday.
The senator was spotted Wednesday flying from Houston to Cancun, before returning home the following day amid outrage. While speaking to reporters outside his home, Cruz expressed regret for the decision to go.
“It was obviously a mistake and in hindsight I wouldn’t have done it,” Cruz told reporters, saying that it wasn’t his intention to diminish “the suffering and hardship other Texans had experienced.”
The storms in Texas left millions without power or clean drinking water for days, though as of Thursday many households had had their power restored.
Cruz has previously criticised Democratic politicians for flouting COVID-19 guidelines that they themselves had promoted.
“Hypocrites. Complete and utter hypocrites,” Cruz tweeted in December, after Democratic officials were found to be breaking their own coronavirus restrictions.
He also chided Austin Mayor Steve Adler, referring to the Democrat taking a “private jet” to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
“And don’t forget @MayorAdler who took a private jet with eight people to Cabo and WHILE IN CABO recorded a video telling Austinites to ‘stay home if you can…this is not the time to relax,'” Cruz tweeted.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas returned from Cancun Thursday evening to find protesters outside his home demanding his resignation after taking the trip while millions in the state deal with severe winter weather.
Speaking to reporters outside his home, Cruz expressed regret for the trip while the protesters could be heard chanting in the background.
“It was obviously a mistake and in hindsight I wouldn’t have done it,” Cruz said, saying that it wasn’t his intention to diminish “the suffering and hardship other Texans had experienced.”
The senator also reiterated he was trying to be a good dad by getting his two girls out of the cold, and said he had planned to be working remotely while on the trip.
“From the moment I sat on the plane, I began really second-guessing that decision,” Cruz told reporters. He said the outrage over the trip made the decision to come home more compelling.
He also called for a “longer term examination” of what went wrong in Texas.
“Our priority should be fixing this problem, and making sure it doesn’t happen again, and I didn’t want all the screaming and yelling about this trip to distract even one moment from the real issues that I think Texans care about,” Cruz said, as protesters outside his home carried signs that read “RESIGN” and chanted “Ted Cruz has got to go.”
Millions of Texans are without heat and power as Arctic weather continues to barrel through the state.
The blackout, which affected 2.8 million people across Texas as of Wednesday morning, is among the largest in US history.
“We know millions of people are suffering,” said Bill Magness, the president of Texas’ electric-grid manager ERCOT, in a statement Wednesday morning. “We have no other priority than getting them electricity.”
While some power was restored Tuesday night, outages are expected to continue through the week. At least 30 people across eight states have died from the winter weather sweeping the country.
Misinformation spread online Tuesday, with some conservative groups and lawmakers falsely blaming the blackouts on frozen wind turbines that quit generating power. In reality, thermal energy sources that went offline, such as coal and natural gas plants, contributed more to the problem.
But the drop in energy supply is just part of the reason why so many people in Texas lost power this week. Here’s what you need to know.
Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman/USA Today Network via Reuters
The simple reason why millions lost power: A gap between supply and demand
A major winter storm that hit Texas over the long weekend caused two important things to happen: Sources of electricity, like natural gas plants, went offline, while at the same time demand for the energy they produce went up, as people across the state turned on heaters to stay warm.
That caused a massive shortfall in energy.
The organization that manages most of Texas’ grid, known as ERCOT, responded by cutting power to millions of homes, in rotating chunks (to limit the time any one household was dark). These so-called rolling blackouts are similar to what happened in California last year, which was also due to extreme weather.
On Wednesday morning, 46 gigawatts of electricity were offline in ERCOT’s territory and 2.8 million customers were without power, ERCOT said. This is one of the largest shortfalls in energy supply in modern US history, Patrick Milligan, a manager and power expert at the consulting firm ICF, told Insider.
Most of the supply that went offline was coal and natural gas, not wind
About 61% of the energy sources offline in Texas on Wednesday were thermal – that is, power plants that run on coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy. The rest was from solar and wind farms, ERCOT said.
Cold weather is the obvious culprit: All different kinds of power plants in Texas have trouble operating in Arctic weather as their instruments freeze, not just wind turbines. In fact, earlier this week, wind farms were overperforming compared to forecasts, said Rebecca Miller, a research manager at Wood Mackenzie who tracks output across the state.
It can be more difficult to pump natural gas out of the ground or transport it to power plants in freezing conditions. What’s more, utilities have prioritized sending natural gas to homes for heating, instead of to power plants, Miller said.
There are other, less obvious drivers behind the Texas blackouts
The US is made up of three major electric grids, and one of them overlaps, almost entirely, with the state of Texas alone. In other words, Texas essentially has its own grid.
That can exacerbate a situation like this, by making it harder for Texas to draw power from other regions that aren’t under the same weather-related stress, said Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, who studies large infrastructure.
“The entire grid of Texas is subjected to this emergency condition at once,” Grubert said. “That’s a lot of pressure to be putting on a grid that doesn’t have access to other areas that aren’t under those conditions.”
But there were other issues at play, as well, such as a lack of preparedness – both on the side of supply and demand.
Homeowners weren’t told to do much to conserve energy, Miller said. Meanwhile, power plants weren’t properly weatherized.
Take the examples of wind turbines. While obvious, it bears mention that wind turbines have no problem operating in much colder states than Texas. Minnesota and Iowa, for example, have large wind farms yet don’t suffer from blackouts when temperatures plunge to single digits.
“Wind can operate perfectly in cold weather,” Milligan said.
Like natural-gas and coal-fired power plants, wind turbines can be weatherized to withstand tough winter conditions. But weatherization costs money turbines in Texas generally aren’t equipped for cold weather.
“Why would you have a snowplow in Austin? That kind of same thinking applies to the power plants,” Grubert said.
It didn’t have to get this bad
This isn’t the first time that Texas has been hit by an Arctic burst. In 2011, around the time of the Superbowl, cold weather swept through the state, causing a familiar result: 3 million people were plunged into darkness.
That’s left many wondering: Why didn’t energy producers and regulators do more to prepare for this cold spell?
They did do something: That summer, a federal report recommended things like weatherization to prevent supply from going offline in the future, the Houston Chronicle reports.
But a lot of that advice wasn’t followed, Milligan said, partly because it wasn’t enforceable and there was no mechanism put in place to pay for it. Weatherization is expensive, he said.
Plus, Texas’ energy market is deregulated, and suppliers there try to produce energy as cheaply as possible, Milligan added.
“The generators are not really incentivized to undertake these kinds of [weatherization] investments,” Milligan said.
It would have been hard to have completely prevented these blackouts, experts told Insider; this kind of weather really is unusual for Texas. But the impacts would not have been so devastating if companies had done more to prepare, they said.
David J. Phillip/AP
More blackouts are coming if we don’t do more to prepare
The irony of blaming wind turbines for the power outages in Texas is that extreme weather events are known to be made worse by climate change – which is, in turn, fueled by burning coal and natural gas. In theory, wind and solar farms offset emissions spewed into the atmosphere, lessening the impact of climate change.
“Can you expect more extremes? Yes,” Grubert said. “In terms of what that means for the grid, that’s a question that we as a society will have to grapple with.”
It’s not only important to prevent outages outright but to ensure that we have ways to keep people safe when the grid goes down, she said.
“Even if the energy system had stayed up, there would have been a lot of people in trouble during this event,” she said, such as those who may not have access to heat.
The importance of managing demand, such as through measures that make buildings more energy-efficient, also can’t be understated, she said.
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
When power will be restored, and what happens next
The outages are likely to continue through the week as a second winter storm brings freezing rain and sleet to the state.
“We are anticipating another cold front this evening which could increase the demand,” Dan Woodfin, ERCOT senior director of system operations, said in a statement Wednesday morning. “The ability to restore more power is contingent on more generation coming back online.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called the blackout event “unacceptable” and said he will add the reform of ERCOT as an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session.
“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said.