Palestinians fill drinking water containers at a distribution site in Khan Yunis, south Gaza, on Oct. 8, 2023. Mohammed Talatene/picture alliance via Getty Images

Water is a central element of the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel controls several water pipelines entering Gaza, much as it controls most of life there. But water can also be a source of hope for an alternative future.

The Middle East is an arid region that is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. There is an essential need for solutions that offer equitable access to water and sanitation, and that protect Israel and the Palestinian territories’ shared water resources.

We study approaches to managing water and other environmental resources and conduct work at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a nonprofit teaching and research center in the south of Israel. At the institute, students and academics from Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan come together to learn from each other and work together, developing technologies and programs that meet the region’s water needs.

Our experience has shown us that working together creates understanding and friendships that defy the ongoing conflict.

We are not naïve. We recognize that water is central to the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet, as we see it, continuing to weaponize water will not make peace more likely. What it will do is amplify the suffering that is already taking place.

The Middle East is facing a water crisis, and divisions between Israelis and Palestinians have only exacerbated the problem. Experts argue that regional cooperation is the only practical strategy.

A dry region with a growing population

The combined population of Israelis and Palestinians living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank is roughly 14 million. Both populations are growing at nearly 2% annually, compared with 0.4% per year for high-income countries. As the populations grow, so does demand for water.

The average yearly per capita water supply for the region is less than 500 cubic meters per capita. According to the United Nations and other experts, this amount is at the upper threshold of absolute water scarcity – the level at which nations can’t meet all demand, especially the large amounts needed for agriculture, and have to restrict water use.

For comparison, in 2015 the U.S. used 1,207 cubic meters of water per capita. One cubic meter is equal to 264 gallons.

Israel and the Palestinian territories’ main fresh water resources are the Jordan River system and two groundwater aquifers – one along the Mediterranean coast and the other beneath the central Judean mountain range. Palestinians in the West Bank have access mainly to the mountain aquifer system, and those in Gaza to the coastal aquifer. Israel uses both.

The 1993 Oslo peace accords included provisions allocating water between Israelis and Palestinians, but ongoing conflict and continued disagreements have hindered updating these agreements to reflect rising water demand.

Unequal access to water

From the foundation of the state of Israel, access to water resources has been as central to the nation’s conflict with the Palestinian people as competing claims to land. Israel has partially decoupled itself from water scarcity by building desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast.

In the West Bank, Israel’s continued occupation has impeded Palestinians’ ability to develop their own water network that could distribute water across the population. The situation in Gaza is even more dire.

Map of Gaza showing population centers and water treatment plants.
Gaza has only a handful of desalination and wastewater treatment plants. Due to the ongoing war with Israel, all of these main plants now lack fuel and many are inoperable. United Nations

Even before the Israel-Hamas war, Gaza had a massive water deficit. Its main source is groundwater, which has been significantly overpumped, and now is so salty as to be undrinkable due to seawater intrusion into the aquifer.

Before the war, most Gazans relied on private water vendors and a few small desalination plants for drinking water. Israel also piped about 10 million cubic meters of water each year into Gaza. But all told, the water supply is not large enough to meet the entire population’s needs. Now, because of the war, no fuel is entering Gaza to run the desalination plants, leaving them inoperable.

Weaponizing water

Israel has turned off water and fuel shipments to Gaza in order to punish Hamas. We believe this strategy has turned a disaster into a catastrophe that is only likely to get worse.

We do not expect that lack of access to drinking water and sanitation will cause Hamas to lay down its arms. But it already is bringing additional misery to the civilians of Gaza and giving them further reason to hate Israel, and will add to international condemnation of Israel.

U.N. officials are warning that lack of water and sanitation will precipitate an enormous health crisis that will particularly affect women and children. It could lead to outbreaks of waterborne disease that will spread rapidly across Gaza’s crowded and besieged population. Gazan hospitals are already overwhelmed with casualties, and lack water and electricity.

A line of large containers on wagons, one pulled by a horse
A drinking water treatment station in Deir al Balah, central Gaza, Oct. 27, 2023. AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah

Collaborative water projects

From 2019 until 2023, the Arava Institute worked together with a Palestinian nonprofit group, which we are not naming here out of concern for its members’ safety; an Israeli water tech company called Watergen; and the Friends of the Arava Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit, to install seven atmospheric water generators to Gaza. These devices, which pull humidity from the atmosphere and turn it into high-quality drinking water, run on solar power to ensure around-the-clock operation in the energy-poor Gaza Strip.

A mad carries a large water container past a cube-shaped machine.
A water generator installed by the Arava Institute in Gaza. Arava Institute, CC BY-ND

We installed the first generator in a small municipality in central Gaza, along the border with Israel, in 2019. The second, larger generator was installed in a major hospital in central Gaza in 2020. During May 2021 hostilities between Hamas and Israel, when water supplies were cut off to many communities, these generators were the only sources of drinking water for many people in the surrounding communities.

In 2023, we raised funds to install five more water generators at medical facilities throughout Gaza. According to David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute’s Track II Environmental Forum, two generators in south Gaza are still working and are the only sources of clean drinking water in the region. The fate of the other units is unclear.

Treating wastewater

In a separate project in 2020, we and our Palestinian partners installed a pilot mobile wastewater treatment plant in a Gazan village. The plant treats about 26,500 gallons (100 cubic meters) of wastewater per day, serving around 1,000 residents, and produces treated wastewater that is of sufficiently high quality to be used in agriculture. We estimate that about 25 of these mobile treatment plants could cover all of the village’s needs.

A large cube-shaped machine on the open roof of a building.
An atmospheric water generator on a building in Gaza. Arava Institute, CC BY-ND

Many rural villages in Gaza have no centralized wastewater treatment system. Wastewater is collected in unsanitary cesspits in the middle of the road between houses. Raw sewage runs in open ditches from homes to the cesspits, which residents pump out around once a month.

Sewage then would normally be transported to a wastewater facility to be treated. But now, because of the war, without fuel for electricity, wastewater plants in Gaza are not working. Raw sewage is being dumped into ecologically important coastal wetlands, called wadis, and into the Mediterranean Sea.

This environmental and public health catastrophe also affects Israel. The Israeli seawater desalination plant in Ashkelon is only a few kilometers north of Gaza and cannot operate if it risks pulling in polluted seawater. Over the years, lack of adequate sewage treatment in Gaza has caused the plant to periodically halt operations.

Working closely with Israeli and Palestinian partners is not easy. People from all sides have histories of trauma and grief, and in most cases, very little experience of the other. But working together on shared water challenges can bring people together.

We know that an alternative future is possible – a future that is grounded in a sense of shared humanity and respect. Indeed, we believe it is the only future that is possible for the intertwined reality of Israelis and Palestinians.

The Conversation

Clive Lipchin directs the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava institute for Environmental Studies. He receives funding from private, national and international funding and donor organizations, including USAID and the European Union. He is affiliated with Tel Aviv University where he serves as adjunct faculty at the Porter School for Environmental Studies and at the School of Conflict Management and Mitigation.

Richard Friend is an Associate Professor in Human Geography and Environment at the University of York (UK). He has received funding from the British Council to support research partnership with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. He currently receives funding from Worldwide Universities Network for research in Thailand.

Read more …Collaborative water management can be a building block for peace between Israelis and Palestinians

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, CEO of the United Arab Emirates' state oil company, will be leading the COP28 United Nations climate conference. Francois Walschaerts/AFP via Getty Images

In December 2023, negotiators from countries worldwide will meet in the United Arab Emirates for the next round of international climate talks. While the talks are considered essential to securing global agreements needed to avoid dangerous climate change, confidence in the summit, known as COP28, is at a low. One reason is the man in charge.

The UAE set off a firestorm in January 2023 when it announced that Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – also known as ADNOC – would be the president-designate of the climate summit, giving him a large amount of control over the meeting’s agenda.

U.S. and European politicians demanded al-Jaber’s resignation. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore claimed that fossil fuel interests had “captured the U.N. process to a disturbing degree, even putting the CEO of one of the largest oil companies in the world in as president of COP28.”

Kerry, in a western business suit, touches Al Jaber's arm as they speak. Al Jaber is in traditional Middle Eastern attire. Both men are tall and about the same height.
U.S. Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry spoke with Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber during the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi on Jan. 14, 2023. Kerry was supportive when al-Jaber was chosen to head COP28. Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

Concerns about the role of fossil fuel industries in obstructing pro-climate policies are entirely legitimate, in my view. There is abundant evidence that the largest fossil fuel companies knew their products would cause climate change decades ago, but deliberately attempted to deny climate science and oppose climate policies.

However, I believe calls to boycott COP28 and ban the region’s choice to lead it are undermining the credibility of United Nations negotiations and are overlooking the potential of the COP28 agenda.

I am a former adviser to the U.N. Environment Program and a scholar of environmental ethics. My own concerns about this issue led me to team up with six colleagues from across the Global South to conduct a detailed comparative analysis of the goals and behavior of the five most recent COP presidencies.

We concluded, to our surprise, that the policy agenda being promoted by the UAE’s COP28 presidency would do much to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. We also found that many criticisms of the UAE’s presidency are unfounded.

How al-Jaber was chosen

First, it’s useful to understand how COP presidents are chosen.

Choosing which country hosts a COP summit is managed by a United Nations process that rotates democratically among six regions. The countries in each region consult about who will represent their region, and that country makes a pitch, which is assessed and finalized by the secretariat that runs the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

For COP28, the Asia-Pacific region, which consists of a diverse mix of developing nations, chose the UAE and al-Jaber.

Energy concerns of the Global South

For some Global South nations, the prospect of phasing out fossil fuels – called for by many activist groups and countries headed into COP28 – seems not only daunting, but a threat to economic development.

Of the dozens of oil-producing countries in the world, around half are middle-income developing countries with economies that are highly vulnerable to volatile oil and gas prices. Studies have suggested that a fast fossil fuel phaseout could cause trillion-dollar losses related to infrastructure investments in oil-producing countries if they aren’t prepared.

At the same time, however, many nations of the Global South face disproportionate consequences from climate change, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels that can threaten the very existence of their communities.

Al-Jaber has called phasing down fossil fuels “inevitable” and “essential”, but he has said the energy system and the Global South aren’t ready for a fast phaseout until renewable energy ramps up and that the summit should focus on adaptation. That view, while supported by some countries in the Global South, has drawn sharp criticism.

Al-Jaber, Masdar and ADNOC

Al-Jaber’s presidency of COP28 has been described by some as an attempt by the UAE to “greenwash” oil and gas expansion plans by ADNOC, one of the largest oil companies in the world.

While I am sympathetic to this concern, my colleagues and I found it to be far too simplistic. Al-Jaber spent the bulk of his career in the renewable energy sector. In 2006, he founded and ran the UAE state-owned renewable energy company, Masdar, which he helped to grow into the largest renewable operator in Africa.

He was appointed CEO of ADNOC in 2016, in the context of the UAE’s official launch of a national “post oil strategy.” The previous year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed delivered a speech to a UAE government summit declaring that the UAE would celebrate “the last barrel of oil” by mid-century.

Three men standing and talking.
Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber has met with officials in several developing countries, including India’s minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bhupender Yadav, right. R.Satish Babu/AFP via Getty Images

ADNOC has been heavily criticized for planning to invest US$150 billion in oil and gas expansion capacity this decade. I share these concerns. To stay within the 1.5-degree Celsius (2.7-Fahrenheit) global warming limits adopted under the Paris Agreement, the world may need to cease new fossil fuel investments, as the International Energy Agency has urged, and also decommission some 40% of already developed fossil fuel reserves.

However, I also believe this must be viewed in a global context when discussing the COP28 presidency: Far larger fossil fuel growth plans than the UAE’s are being led by the U.S., Canada, Russia, Iran, China and Brazil. Most fossil fuel financing around the world comes from banks in the U.S., Canada and Japan. And since 2015, European banks have poured a colossal $1.3 trillion into fossil fuels, including $130 billion in 2022 alone.

The COP28 agenda

In our assessment, we found that the UAE is already providing leadership that goes beyond previous COP presidencies.

Our report found that the total value of the renewable energy projects planned by the UAE with various partners this decade adds up to over $300 billion. This is considerably bigger than clean energy investments mobilized by previous COP presidencies, our analysis found.

The COP28 agenda that the UAE is promoting also offers a promising pathway to accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels.

The agenda includes a goal of tripling renewable energy capacity within the next seven years, further driving down costs to rapidly outcompete fossil fuels, potentially within the next 20 years.

It also calls for countries to agree to eliminate fossil fuel production where carbon emissions are not captured by around midcentury, which could fast-track scaling up carbon capture, usage and storage commercially.

And restructuring climate financing to make it low-cost and reduce debt burdens, as the UAE presidency proposes, could finally unlock the trillions of dollars desperately needed by the developing world to support its energy transitions while industrializing. Given that lack of financing is the key obstacle to the energy transition in developing countries, COP28’s focus on this is critical.

Certainly, the optics of having an oil CEO lead a climate summit is concerning for anyone who advocates rapid-action phasing down of fossil fuels, and it remains to be seen how dedicated the UAE is to these policies. But I and my co-authors of the report concluded that if the COP28 summit succeeds in securing landmark agreements on the above issues, it would be a significant step forward in fast-tracking a just transition away from fossil fuels and a considerable improvement on what has been proposed in past COP summits.

The Conversation

İbrahim Özdemir was previously Director General of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Ministry of National Education in Turkey. He was previously a member of the UNESCO Turkish Commission Board between 2005 and 2010, Turk Felsefe Dernegi (The Turkish Philosophical Association) between 2001 and 2009, and the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats between 2000 and 2004.

Read more …Backlash to the oil CEO leading the UN climate summit overlooks his ambitious agenda for COP28 –...

The Rio Grande, viewed from the Zaragoza International Bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Vianey Rueda, CC BY-ND

The Rio Grande is one of the longest rivers in North America, running some 1,900 miles (3,060 kilometers) from the Colorado Rockies southeast to the Gulf of Mexico. It provides fresh water for seven U.S. and Mexican states, and forms the border between Texas and Mexico, where it is known as the Río Bravo del Norte.

The river’s English and Spanish names mean, respectively, “large” and “rough.” But viewed from the Zaragoza International Bridge, which connects the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, what was once mighty is now a dry riverbed, lined ominously with barbed wire.

Map of the Rio Grande basin, from southwest Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Rio Grande is one of the largest rivers in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico. Because of drought and overuse, sections of the river frequently run dry. Kmusser/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

In the U.S., people often think of the Rio Grande mainly as a political border that features in negotiations over immigration, narcotics smuggling and trade. But there’s another crisis on the river that receives far less attention. The river is in decline, suffering from overuse, drought and contentious water rights negotiations.

Urban and rural border communities with poor infrastructure, known in Spanish as colonias, are particularly vulnerable to the water crisis. Farmers and cities in southern Texas and northern Mexico are also affected. As researchers who study hydrology and transboundary water management, we believe managing this important resource requires closer cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.

A hidden water crisis

For nearly 80 years, the U.S. and Mexico have managed and distributed water from the Colorado River and the Lower Rio Grande – from Fort Quitman, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico – under the 1944 Water Treaty, signed by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Manuel Avila Camacho. The Colorado River was the central focus of treaty negotiations because officials believed the Colorado basin would have more economic activity and population growth, so it would need more water. In fact, however, the Rio Grande basin has also seen significant growth.

For the Rio Grande, the treaty allocates specific shares of water to the U.S. and Mexico from both the river’s main stem and its tributaries in Texas and Mexico. Delivery of water from six Mexican tributaries has become the source of contention. One-third of this flow is allocated to the U.S., and must total some 76 million cubic feet (2.2 million cubic meters) over each five-year period.

The treaty allows Mexico to roll any accrued deficits at the end of a five-year cycle over to the next cycle. Deficits can only be rolled over once, and they must be made up along with the required deliveries for the following five-year period.

Farmers as far north as Colorado rely on water from the Rio Grande for irrigation.

These five-year periods, called cycles, are numbered. Cycles 25 (1992-1997) and 26 (1997-2002) were the first time that two consecutive cycles ended in deficit. Like the Colorado River, the Rio Grande has become over-allocated: The 1944 treaty promises users more water than there is in the river. The main causes are persistent drought and increased water demand on both sides of the border.

Much of this demand was generated by the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated most border tariffs between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. From 1993 through 2007, agricultural imports and exports between the U.S. and Mexico quadrupled, and there was extensive expansion of maquiladoras – assembly plants along the border. This growth increased water demand.

Ultimately, Mexico delivered more than the required amount for Cycle 27 (2002-2007), plus its incurred deficit from cycles 25 and 26, by transferring water from its reservoirs. This outcome appeased Texas users but left Mexico vulnerable. Since then, Mexico has continued to struggle to meet its treaty responsibilities and has experienced chronic water shortages.

In 2020, a confrontation erupted in the state of Chihuahua between the Mexican National Guard and farmers who believed delivery to Texas of water from the Rio Conchos – one of the six tributaries regulated under the 1944 treaty – threatened their survival. In 2022, people lined up at water distribution sites in the Mexican city of Monterrey, where the population had doubled since 1990. As of 2023, halfway through Cycle 36, Mexico has only delivered some 25% of its targeted amount.

Border politics overshadow water shortages

As climate change makes the Southwest hotter and drier, scientists predict that water shortages on the Rio Grande will intensify. In this context, the 1944 treaty pits humanitarian needs for water in the U.S. against those in Mexico.

It also pits the needs of different sectors against one another. Agriculture is the dominant water consumer in the region, followed by residential use. When there is a drought, however, the treaty prioritizes residential water use over agriculture.

The Rio Grande is affected by nearly the same hydroclimate conditions as the Colorado River, which flows mainly through the southwest U.S. but ends in Mexico. However, drought and water shortages in the Colorado River basin receive much more public attention than the same problems on the Rio Grande. U.S. media outlets cover the Rio Grande almost exclusively when it figures in stories about immigration and river crossings, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s 2023 decision to install floating barriers in the river at widely used crossing points.

The compact that governs use of Colorado River water has widely recognized flaws: The agreement is 100 years old, allocates more rights to water than the river holds, and completely excludes Native American tribes. However, negotiations over the Colorado between compact states and the U.S. and Mexico are much more focused than decision-making about Rio Grande water, which has to compete with many other bilateral issues.

Dry, cracked mud with mountains in the background
Dry, cracked mud along the banks of the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park in Texas, March 25, 2011. In the spring and early summer of 2022, up to 75 miles of the river went dry in the park. AP Photo/Mike Graczyk

Adapting to the future

As we see it, the 1944 water treaty is inadequate to solve the complex social, economic, hydrological and political challenges that exist today in the Rio Grande basin. We believe it needs revision to reflect modern conditions.

This can be done through the minute process, which permits Mexico and the U.S. to adopt legally binding amendments without having to renegotiate the entire agreement. The two countries have already used this process to update the treaty as it pertains to the Colorado River in 2012 and again in 2017.

These steps allowed the U.S. to adjust its deliveries of Colorado River water to Mexico based on water levels in Lake Mead, the Colorado’s largest reservoir, in ways that proportionally distributed drought impacts between the two countries. In the Rio Grande basin, Mexico does not have similar flexibility.

The U.S. also has the ability to proportionally reduce deliveries under a separate 1906 agreement that outlines water delivery from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. In 2013, for example, Mexico received only 6% of the water it was due under the 1906 Convention.

Enabling Mexico to proportionally reduce Rio Grande deliveries according to drought conditions would distribute drought and climate change impacts more fairly between both countries. As we see it, this kind of cooperation would deliver human, ecological and political benefits in a complex and contentious region.

The Conversation

Vianey Rueda received funding through CUAHSI’s Instrumentation Discovery Travel Grant, which helps researchers learn about hydrologic instrumentation.

Drew Gronewold does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Read more …The Rio Grande isn't just a border – it's a river in crisis

Rocky Mountain fires leave telltale ash layers in nearby lakes like this one. Philip Higuera

Strong winds blew across mountain slopes after a record-setting warm, dry summer. Small fires began to blow up into huge conflagrations. Towns in crisis scrambled to escape as fires bore down.

This could describe any number of recent events, in places as disparate as Colorado, California, Canada and Hawaii. But this fire disaster happened over 110 years ago in the Northern Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Montana.

The “Big Burn” of 1910 still holds the record for the largest fire season in the Northern Rockies. Hundreds of fires burned over 3 million acres – roughly the size of Connecticut – most in just two days. The fires destroyed towns, killed 86 people and galvanized public policies committed to putting out every fire.

A black and white photo from 1910 shows rail lines and the burned shells of buildings
Many residents of Wallace, Idaho, fled on trains ahead of the 1910 blaze. Volunteers who stayed saved part of the town, but about a third of it burned. R.H. McKay/U.S. Forest Service archive, CC BY

Today, as the climate warms, fire seasons like in 1910 are becoming more likely. The 2020 fire season was an example. But are extreme fire seasons like these really that unusual in the context of history? And, when fire activity begins to surpass anything experienced in thousands of years – as research suggests is happening in the Southern Rockies – what will happen to the forests?

As paleoecologists, we study how and why ecosystems changed in the past. In a multiyear project, highlighted in two new publications, we tracked how often forest fires occurred in high-elevation forests in the Rocky Mountains over the past 2,500 years, how those fires varied with the climate and how they affected ecosystems. This long view provides both hopeful and concerning lessons for making sense of today’s extreme fire events and impacts on forests.

Lakes record history going back millennia

When a high-elevation forest burns, fires consume tree needles and small branches, killing most trees and lofting charcoal in the air. Some of that charcoal lands on lakes and sinks to the bottom, where it is preserved in layers as sediment accumulates.

After the fire, trees regrow and also leave evidence of their existence in the form of pollen grains that fall on the lake and sink to the bottom.

By extracting a tube of those lake sediments, like a straw pushed into a layer cake from above, we were able to measure the amounts of charcoal and pollen in each layer and reconstruct the history of fire and forest recovery around a dozen lakes across the footprint of the 1910 fires.

A woman sitting an inflatable boat, wearing a life jacket, holds a long tube filed with lake bottom sediment.
Author Kyra Clark-Wolf holds a sediment core pulled from a lake containing evidence of fires over thousands of years. Philip Higuera
Long tubes of lake floor sediment are opened on a table.
Researchers at the University of Montana examine a sediment core from a high-elevation lake in the Rocky Mountains. Each core is sliced into half-centimeter sections, reflecting around 10 years each, and variations in charcoal within the core are used to reconstruct a timeline of past wildfires. University of Montana

Lessons from Rockies’ long history with fire

The lake sediments revealed that high-elevation, or subalpine, forests in the Northern Rockies in Montana and Idaho have consistently bounced back after fires, even during periods of drier climate and more frequent burning than we saw in the 20th century.

High-elevation forests only burn about once every 100 to 250 or more years on average. We found that the amount of burning in subalpine forests of the Northern Rockies over the 20th and 21st centuries remained within the bounds of what those forests experienced over the previous 2,500 years. Even today, the Northern Rockies show resilience to wildfires, including early signs of recovery after extensive fires in 2017.

Three illustrated charts show forest density increasing and time between fires falling over the past 4,800 years at one location.
Long-term changes in climate, forest density and fire frequency over the past 4,800 years in one high-elevation forest in the Northern Rockies, reconstructed from lake sediments. The red dots reflect timing of past fires. Kyra Clark-Wolf

But similar research in high-elevation forests of the Southern Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming tells a different story.

The record-setting 2020 fire season, with three of Colorado’s largest fires, helped push the rate of burning in high-elevation forests in Colorado and Wyoming into uncharted territory relative to the past 2,000 years.

Climate change is also having bigger impacts on whether and how forests recover after wildfires in warmer, drier regions of the West, including the Southern Rockies, the Southwest and California. When fires are followed by especially warm, dry summers, seedlings can’t establish and forests struggle to regenerate. In some places, shrubby or grassy vegetation replace trees altogether.

Graphs show fire activity rising with temperature over time.
Fire history reconstructions from 20 high-elevation lakes in the Southern Rockies show that historically, fires burned every 230 years on average. That has increased significantly in the 21st century. Philip Higuera, CC BY-ND

Changes happening now in the Southern Rockies could serve as an early warning for what to expect further down the road in the Northern Rockies.

Warmer climate, greater fire activity, higher risks

Looking back thousands of years, it’s hard to ignore the consistent links between the climate and the prevalence of wildfires.

Warmer, drier springs and summers load the dice to make extensive fire seasons more likely. This was the case in 1910 in the Northern Rockies and in 2020 in the Southern Rockies.

When, where and how climate change will push the rate of burning in the rest of the Rockies into uncharted territory is harder to anticipate. The difference between 1910 and 2020 was that 1910 was followed by decades with low fire activity, whereas 2020 was part of an overall trend of increasing fire activity linked with global warming. Just one fire like 1910’s Big Burn in the coming decades, in the context of 21st-century fire activity, would push the Northern Rockies beyond any known records.

A tiny pine seedling in a vast landscape of burned trees and soil.
A lodgepole pine tree seedling begins to grow one year after the October 2020 East Troublesome Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park. Recovery in high-elevation forests takes decades. Philip Higuera

Lessons from the long view

The clock is ticking.

Extreme wildfires will become more and more likely as the climate warms, and it will be harder for forests to recover. Human activity is also raising the risk of fires starting.

The Big Burn of 1910 left a lasting impression because of the devastating impacts on lives and homes and, as in the 2020 fire season and many other recent fire disasters, because of the role humans played in igniting them.

Photo shows burned trees across miles of hillsides along a railroad line
The aftermath of the 1910 fire near the North Fork of the St. Joe River in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest, Idaho. R.H. McCoy/U.S. Forest Service archive, CC BY

Accidental ignitions – from downed power lines, escaped campfires, dragging chains, railroads – expand when and where fires occur, and they lead to the majority of homes lost to fires. The fire that destroyed Lahaina, Hawaii, is the most recent example.

So what can we do?

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, power plants and other sources can help slow warming and the impacts of climate change on wildfires, ecosystems and communities. Forest thinning and prescribed burns can alter how forests burn, protecting humans and minimizing the most severe ecological impacts.

Reframing the challenge of living with wildfire – building with fire-resistant materials, reducing accidental ignitions and increasing preparedness for extreme events – can help minimize damage while maintaining the critical role that fires have played in forests across the Rocky Mountains for millennia.

The Conversation

Kyra Clark-Wolf has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Joint Fire Science Program

Philip Higuera receives funding from the National Science Foundation, United States Geological Survey, and Joint Fire Science Program.

Read more …What 2,500 years of wildfire evidence and the extreme fire seasons of 1910 and 2020 tell us about...

More Articles …