2017 in natural disasters

From massive wildfires to melting ice, the calamities that affected the West this year.

 

A variety of natural forces — floods, fires, droughts and more — pounded the West in 2017, many of which are intensifying thanks to climate change. The year also saw an influx of evidence that humans have altered the earth’s climate so much that certain severe weather events would not have been possible in a pre-industrial world. “It’s quite bold for scientists to make these very strong statements,” says Andrew King, an expert weather and climate at the University of Melbourne in Australia. That unflinching stance from researchers suggests that 2017 may have been a turning point in their confidence in the links between climate change and specific disasters. “For scientists to say that an event would be virtually impossible without climate change — they’re very sure.” We rounded up some of the most notable climate and weather events that rocked the West:

A firefighter battles the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in the modern history of California, in Dec. 2017.

Hot weather broke records

While scientists don’t expect 2017 to beat out 2016 as the hottest year on record (though it will likely be among the top three), several Western states broke monthly heat records in 2017. Colorado and New Mexico experienced the warmest March in each state’s history. Along the Pacific coast, California, Oregon and Washington set records for the hottest August on the books. Autumn scorched the Four Corners states: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah each broke its November heat record

Fire spread smoke across the West

Wildfires raced across the West in 2017, with California hit particularly hard. The Golden State experienced the costliest, most destructive blazes in its history in October, when 44 people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed near Napa and Santa Rosa. Two months later, the Thomas Fire, now the state’s largest wildfire on record, started east of Santa Barbara on Dec. 4 and was still burning as 2017 came to a close. 

In Montana, wildfires burned more than 1 million acres this year, filling the air with a haze of lung-damaging smoke, a problem that could get worse in the coming years. Scientists expect to see more fires and a longer fire season as temperatures rise across the West.

Arctic sea ice hit a new winter low

As the climate warms, the amount of sea ice in the Arctic is decreasing. Sea ice cover hits its maximum in March, when there’s typically two or three times as much ice as there is in September, after summertime melting. In March 2017, Arctic sea ice peaked for the year — and broke the record for the lowest winter maximum ever recorded.

That could drive changes far from the North Pole. In December, scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Lab published a study elucidating the link between Arctic sea ice loss and drought in California.

Drought swept the northern Rockies

This year’s fires were fueled in part by severe drought. Exceptionally dry conditions in the northern Great Plains began in the spring and lasted into the fall, decimating crops in parts of Montana and the Dakotas. The drought also left many pastures unable to support cattle. Fields were so parched that many ranchers were forced to sell their animals or rely on donations of hay to get by.

California storms brought relief and ruin

California’s latest drought was declared largely over in early April. But the deluges of winter rain along the coast that helped end the dry spell also brought destruction. Tens of thousands of people in San Jose evacuated due to flooding in February, some of whom were still displaced months after the disaster. And more than 180,000 people downstream of Oroville Dam were told to flee their homes on Feb. 12, when officials feared that damage to the dam’s two spillways could lead to a catastrophic, uncontrolled release of water. Though the reservoir walls held, preventing widespread flooding, repairs to the spillways are expected to cost more than $640 million.

California’s heavy rains also set off several landslides. In Big Sur, a major bridge was damaged beyond repair in February and sections of Highway 1, California’s iconic coastal route, were obliterated, leaving some communities inaccessible by car. The biggest slide, on May 20, blanketed a quarter-mile of the highway and created a new, 15-acre peninsula jutting into the ocean.

Colorado hailstorm smashed coffers

Rain wasn’t the only destructive weather that pummeled the West this year. On May 8, thunderstorms hit Denver, Colorado, and the surrounding area, walloping buildings and cars with hail the size of baseballs. More than 100,000 vehicles were damaged. The final price tag for the destruction wrought by the barrage was more than $1.5 billion, making it the state’s most expensive hailstorm ever.

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...