Climate change fueling smoky skies in Colorado

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Over the weekend and to start the week, wildfire smoke has combined with poor ozone conditions to prompt the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to issue an air quality health advisory for much of the state.

Looking up at Pikes Peak Monday, the mountain was blanketed in a coat of smoke as wildfires, mainly in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, have hurled smoke towards Colorado and east.

“Unfortunately for Colorado, we’re downwind from a lot of these areas that are under extreme drought conditions,” said Scott Landes, the supervisor of meteorology and prescribed fire unit in the CDPHE’s Air Quality division.

Landes said the wildfire season is lengthening, and prolonged years-long drought across the western United States’ high mountain forests are causing more fires and more smoke. He explained that 2018 and 2020 saw a large number of air quality advisories and warnings, building up on an increase in recent years.

“Long term drought, that’s kind of a symptom of climate change, so we anticipate that we will be experiencing more of these summers in the future,” Landes said.

Colorado’s Front Range mountains are about the only mountain range spared from drought in the dry West. There are four fires that managers have their eye on, but really just one that’s been concerning: The Morgan Creek Fire north of Steamboat Springs was first spotted Friday and has grown to over 3,400 acres as of Monday evening.

From the Continental Divide and west, the extended dry patterns making up current drought conditions are building on a several-year, prolonged drought that has killed millions of trees across California and Arizona, as well as other western states.

It’s part of “climate change setting the state for bigger, stronger wildfires,” Bernadette Woods Placky said.

Placky is the Chief Meteorologist for Climate Central and director of its Climate Matters program. She explained lower elevations are experiencing shorter winters and, in the spring, snow is melting quicker in a hotter environment, laying the foundation for the kinds of summers that the west has been inundated within recent years.

“When you have hotter years, dryer ground, you have explosive conditions for these kinds of fires, we’re seeing those situations set up more and more with climate change,” Placky added.

Chart shows the projected increase of days where surface-level smoke is present across the American West.
Courtesy of Climate Central.

Climate Matters has researched how days where surface-level smoke from wildfires will increase in the future. The organization projects those days could triple by 2050 if nothing changes soon.

“These types of days are happening more often and they’re sticking around longer and unfortunately, unless we do change our patterns and we reduce our emissions going forwards, this trend is going to accelerate and that path we’re on is only going to get worse unless we do something about that,” Placky said.

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