wildfires

The Importance of Snowpack

by Mike Kolian

In the United States, changes in snowpack currently represent one of the best documented hydrological signs of climate change. Snowpack is a key indicator and plays a vitally important role both in the environment and to society.

Snowpack accounts for a majority of water supply in many parts of the West as it stores vast amounts of water that is slowly released as temperatures rise in the spring and summer. Snowpack keeps the ground and soil moist by covering it longer into spring and summer which influences the onset of the fire season as well as the prevalence and severity of wildfires. In addition, hydro-electric power generation in the West is heavily reliant on water supplied by melting snowpack.

A very serious story is unfolding out West. This year, snowpack in the western U.S. is at record lows in the Sierra Nevada and Cascades of California, Oregon, and Washington, confirmed by the recent April 1st snowpack measurements. In fact, some snowpack sites in California and Washington were observed to be snow-free this spring for the first time since observations began.

Snowpack is measured in snow-water equivalent, which reflects the amount of water contained in the snowpack at a location (if the entire snowpack were to melt). This indicator is based on data from over 700 measurements sites across 11 western states and shows long-term rates of change for the month of April, which could reflect changes in winter snowfall as well as the timing of spring snowmelt.

map chart titled "Trends in April Snowpack in the Western United States 1955-2015." Charts shows mostly percentage reductions of snowpack over all mountains areas, ranging from 0 to -80 percent. Very few areas show small increases.

Over the last 60 years, there have been widespread temperature-related reductions in snowpack in the West, with the largest reductions occurring in lower elevation mountains in the Northwest and California. From 1955 to 2015, April snowpack declined at over 90 percent of the sites measured (see map). The average change across all sites amounts to about a 14 percent decline. Observations also indicate a decrease in total snowfall and a transition to more rain and less snow in both the West and Northeast in the last 50 years.

photo of a resevoir with water levels dropped way below usual level

Long-term trends in snowpack provide important evidence that climate-related shifts are underway, and highlight the seriousness of water-resource and drought issues that Western states such as California currently face.

Less snowpack means less water and less water means more serious impacts.

Explore more:

See this and other Snow and Ice indicators

Open the map in Google Earth (KMZ) (100K, Download Google Earth): http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/images/indicator_downloads/snowpack_april1.kmz

About the author: Mike Kolian is an environmental scientist with EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs, Climate Change Division. His deep roots managing long-term environmental monitoring programs form the basis of his appreciation for the important role they and their data play in scientifically based decision making.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate Change and the Dry, Wild West Part 2

Welcome to part two of my blog on the California drought. In my last blog, I discussed how low rainfall and higher-than-average temperatures are worsening the drought and causing severe water shortages.

The changes that are affecting the drought in the Southwest – lower-than-average rain, higher temperatures, and changes in snowpack and runoff patterns – are consistent with the changes we expect to see with climate change. The Southwest is already the hottest and driest region in the United States, and, according to the National Climate Assessment this area is expected to get even hotter and drier in the future.

Impacts on Human Health
There are consequences of long periods of dryness. When vegetation is dried out or stressed, wildfires are able to start more easily and burn hotter. Wildfire data in California suggest a trend towards increasing acres burned statewide. The annual average of acres burned since 2000 is 598,000 acres, almost twice the annual average for the 1950-2000 period. This is almost the area of New York City and Los Angeles combined. Increased wildfires increase the risk of harmful respiratory and cardiovascular effects of those who are exposed to the smoke. Wildfire risks can even spread hundreds of miles downwind from burning acreage and affect the health of those many miles from the blaze. In addition, increased wildfires can cause significant damage ecosystems and property, and put firefighters and rescue workers at risk.

Impacts on the Economy
The predicted total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion, with a total loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs. The impacts of California’s drought – water restrictions, wildfires that threaten homes and health, and financial cost – will not only affect California residents, but may have ripple effects across the country. According to a study by UC Davis, expected water shortages through 2014 are projected to cause losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and other livestock value, plus additional groundwater pumping costs of $454 million. The water shortage not only threatens California’s agricultural production, but could impact food prices felt by the rest of the country.

In short, the drought in California is serious, and climate change is increasing the odds for longer and more intense droughts like the one occurring now. Fortunately, there are numerous initiatives underway to reduce the carbon pollution driving climate change, and to better prepare for the changes that are already happening. States, like California, have taken the lead in reducing emissions through market-based initiatives, and many states are making strides with climate action plans, renewable portfolio standards, and energy efficiency resource standards. Under the President’s Climate Action Plan, EPA is promoting standards for vehicles and power plants that build on what these states have accomplished and will provide billions of dollars in climate and health benefits in the next few decades.

With our combined efforts, we can reduce the risks we all face from our changing climate. I’m proud to support EPA’s climate efforts – for the sake of my home town and all those impacted by climate change.

Learn more about the causes and impacts of climate change, what EPA is doing to address it, and what you can do about climate change on our website.

Learn more about California’s response to climate change on the state’s website.

A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.  Image: U.S. Drought Monitor http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

A picture of mid- September drought conditions from the past 10 years. While drought is not something new to California, continued periods of drought have significant impacts on the state.
Image: U.S. Drought Monitor http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

About the author: Krystal Laymon is an ORISE Fellow in EPA’s Climate Change Division. She has a background in environmental policy and communications. Krystal received her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University and currently resides in Washington, DC with a turtle named Ollie.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Matters: Closing the Asthma Gap

To observe October as Children’s Health Month, we will periodically post Science Matters feature articles about EPA’s children’s health research here on the blog. Learn more about EPA’s efforts to protect children’s health by going to www.epa.gov/ochp.

Nearly 26 million Americans, including seven million children, are affected by asthma. But when emergency room doors burst open for someone with an asthma attack, chances are the patient will be a poor, minority child.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), minority children living in poor socioeconomic conditions are at greatest risk. For instance, 16% of African American children had asthma in 2010 compared to 8.2% of white children, and they are twice as likely to be hospitalized with an asthma attack and four times more likely to die than white children. The asthma rate among children living in poverty was 12.2% in 2010, compared to 8.2% among children living above the poverty line.

“Across America we see low-income and minority children and families at a disproportionately higher risk for asthma and respiratory illnesses. Air pollution and other challenges are having serious health effects, which compound economic challenges through medical bills and missed school and work days,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “As the mother of a child with asthma, I know what it means for our children to have clean and healthy air to breathe.”

Administrator Jackson made those remarks during the unveiling of the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities, a blueprint for how EPA and other federal agencies can team up to reduce asthma disparities.

A major part of that effort is the work conducted by EPA scientists and their partners exploring environmental causes and triggers of asthma, including how socioeconomic factors contribute to childhood asthma. The overall goal is to illuminate the underlying factors of asthma to support work on prevention and intervention strategies.

What increases the risk of developing asthma? While part of the answer certainly lies with genetics, as more than half of all children with asthma also have close relatives with the illness, the environment also plays a key role. Air pollutants, allergens, mold, and other environmental agents trigger asthma attacks.

EPA researchers and their partners are leading the effort to develop new scientific methods, models, and data for assessing how such triggers increase the risk for asthma and asthma attacks. The impact of this research has already contributed to current regulatory standards for two priority air pollutants regulated under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS): ozone and particulate matter. EPA’s asthma research has also been factored into health assessments for diesel emissions.

The next step is to learn ways to better protect those most at risk.

“Now we’re digging into the disparities side of the asthma problem,” said Martha Carraway, MD, a researcher at EPA. “Kids with poorly controlled asthma are more likely to be treated in the emergency room than kids with controlled asthma. So for public health reasons we need to understand how environmental factors, including air pollution, affect asthma control in vulnerable populations.”

To advance that work, EPA researchers and their partners took advantage of a 2008 lightning strike that occurred in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. The 40,000-acre (16,000-hectare), smoldering peat fire sparked by the lightning sent thick, billowing clouds of smoke wafting into the air.

In collaboration with scientists at the University of North Carolina Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology, a team of EPA researchers led by David Diaz-Sanchez, PhD compared emergency room visits for asthma with air quality reports. Looking at the results geographically, they found that low income counties had significantly more visits than more affluent counties, even though air quality and exposure levels were the same.

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“EPA studies suggest that children and others living in low-income counties could be less resilient to air pollution, possibly because of social factors such as inadequate nutrition. For example, if you’re poor and you’re not eating well, your asthma may be more severe,” said Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, MPH, Executive Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network, a national multi-disciplinary organization whose mission is to protect developing children from environmental health hazards and promote a healthier environment. “Of course, other factors may also be involved, such as whether kids take medications correctly and whether they have access to good medical care.”

EPA’s research on asthma disparities can help guide newer and better interventions for reducing exposure to asthma triggers and limiting the impacts of the ailment, helping to close the gap for minority and poor children and improving the health of children everywhere.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Science Wednesday: EPA Study Shows Health Hazards Associated with Peat Wildfire Smoke

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Sarah Blau

A few weeks ago my eyes wouldn’t stop itching. That intense, burning itch you know you shouldn’t scratch, but eventually you do. My irritated eyes were telling me that something was wrong, that some foreign species was polluting the air I breathe and my body did not like it.

The source of this relentless itch I discovered from the news on the drive home—wildfires! Wildfire smoke, to be more exact, wafting some 200 miles from the North Carolina coast where peat fires have been smoldering since early May.

As it turns out, I had only one minor symptom of something that can actually cause serious health problems.

In fact, I recently learned that a team of scientists led by EPA investigated the cardiovascular health effects of a similar eastern NC peat fire in 2008. A paper describing the results of this study was published Monday by Environmental Health Perspectives.

Researchers collected emergency room (ER) records from counties directly affected by the 2008 fire’s smoke plume and compared those records to ER records from smoke-free neighboring counties. Research statistics show that the smoke affected counties had an increase in ER visits by 65% for asthma, 59% for pneumonia and bronchitis, and 37% for symptoms of heart failure.

Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

Peat fires differ from western canopy wildfires in both the way they burn and the chemical composition of their smoke. This is the first known study to show that exposure to a peat fire can cause both respiratory and cardiovascular effects, and the first study to conclusively show associations between a wildfire and emergency department visits for heart failure symptoms.

Wildfires are inevitable, but we are not completely helpless to suffer their mal-effects. EPA’s AIRNow website is an excellent source for information on both the air quality in your region, and how to protect yourself from the hazard of wildfire smoke.

Whether it’s severe cardiovascular illness or minor allergy-type symptoms, research by EPA and others has shown that wildfire smoke can have harmful health effects. Keep yourself informed of your local air quality and when conditions are poor, take appropriate actions. Maybe if I had taken a shorter morning walk outside with my dog, I wouldn’t have had itchy eyes all day!

About the author:  Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Science Communication Team.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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OnAir@AAAR: Wildfire sparks idea in EPA scientist

Bob Devlin was 100 miles away from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge when he looked out a window and noticed something strange.

The thick smog he noticed that day in the summer of 2008 appeared suspicious because it wasn’t smog… it was smoke.

Though far removed, Devlin caught a firsthand glimpse of the smoke plume emanating from a huge wildfire that ravaged over 30,000 acres of eastern North Carolina.

“That was the day that started it all,” Devlin said Wednesday at the AAAR conference.

After the fire, he quickly banded together a large group of scientists to collaborate on an innovative project. He sought to not only study the health effects of such a large fire, but to do so in a way that communities and states could mimic cheaply and easily during future wildfire events.

Using satellite imagery, Devlin and his colleagues looked at every North Carolina county that was covered in smoke during the three worst days of the fire. They also collected easily accessible data on daily emergency room visits during the worst fire days.

Devlin found significant spikes in emergency room visits for asthma, heart failure, arrhythmia, and pneumonia in counties that were covered in smoke during the worst wildfire days.

The data is unique for two reasons. It is the first time such associations between wildfire pollution and emergency room visits due to cardiovascular problems have been made (previously, only respiratory effects were reported). It is also one of the first case studies of a peat fire, which, in contrast to a normal wildfire, emits pollution particles closer to the ground where people may more readily inhale them.

While the findings are interesting in their own right, the larger significance of the study lies in the ability of the public health community to replicate Devlin’s analysis cheaply, easily, and without sophisticated statistical methods.

“Anybody can access these satellite images, count up the counties covered in smoke, and look at emergency room visits,” Devlin explained.

“In the future, public health officials can use this method to make decisions… [they can decide] for example, whether elderly people should be removed from the path of wildfire smoke.”

The next step, Devlin said, is to continue analysis of the 2008 fire by incorporating data on actual hospital admissions.

For an abstract of Devlin’s work, visit

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. Her OnAir posts are a regular “Science Wednesday” feature.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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